Tuesday 5 July 2011

Knowledge Management - a term lost in translation

Lost in TranslationKnowledge Management is in a state of mild chaos at the moment. There is no established understanding of the term; instead there are conflicting fields vying for the label. Library science, web 2.0, engineering KM, storytelling, lesson-learning; on a good day, these can be seen as clusters within a distribution or characters within a crowd, while on a bad day they are fierce combatants in a turf war, with IT vendors on each side adding to the noise and smoke.
Why the confusion?
Largely, I would suggest , because of a strange deficiency in the English language.

In English, unlike in many other languages, we have only one verb for "Knowing" and only one noun for "Knowledge".Other languages have two words; one of which means "intimate knowledge, knowledge as capability, know-how", the other means "knowledge of facts, rote knowledge, know-what". Savoir and Connaitre in French, Kennen and Wissen in Germany, Kunne and Vite in Norwegian, and so on. Vestiges remain in dialect ("Do you ken?") but mostly the distinction between the two in English has gone.

With the two words, there is a world of difference. Someone might say  "I know Paris" ("Jeg er kjent med Paris"), someone else might say "I know the capital of France" ("Jeg vet hovedstaden i Frankrike"). The second person might be useful in a very easy pub quiz, but the first is the person you want as a guide to the best restaurants, hotels and sights.

It is the first type of knowledge that gives power ("savoir, c'est pouvoir") and creates an economy ("économie du savoir"). That is the Know-How knowledge, that deals with capabilities; that directs action and delivers business result. Knowledge Management focused on Know-How looks at improving the competence of the organisation by giving people access to the knowledge they need to make the correct decisions.

The second type of knowledge, the Know-What knowledge is close to Information, and managing "Know-What" gets very close to content management, to Information Management, or to Business Intelligence.
Unfortunately, although it is "Savoir" that gives Power, Knowledge Management is too often translated as Connaitre ("Gestion de Connaisance", Wissensmanagement, etc). My friend Adel tells me that Arabic clearly distinguishes between the two, in the Quran for example. And yet when Knowledge Management is translated into Arabic, the translation is always to "Know-What Management".

So we have two meanings hidden in the one word; and as an outworking, we have two views of Knowledge Management. In addition we have one meaning that carries connotations of power, economy and capability, and a discipline that all too often focuses on the other meaning.  One looks at know-how; knowledge as capability. The other looks at know-what; knowledge as facts. The differences between the two are lost in translation, as we struggle over how to manage one word, with two meanings.

If we could have KnowHow management and KnowWhat Management, Gestion de Savoir and Gestion de Connaisance, Kennenmanagement and Wissensmanagement, then the turf war would subside, with the Storytellers and the learners-from-experience working under one heading, and the content managers, librarians and SharePoint vendors working under the other.
My own life in Knowledge Management has always been in the service of the first word - Know-How, as that is where I see the value, but I really wish we had the two words and therefore the two disciplines! It would make life so much easier.


Gerald Meinert said...

Very helpful distinction, respectively the way you explain it, makes it obvious.
Productive chaos (your good days) is necessary, otherwise the discipline gets dry and loses innovation, good when they talk, if they don't talk it is another of your stories (BP silos)


Ian Glendinning said...

Dead right, and in fact it goes deeper. You could argue the flexibility of the English language has other benefits - eg there are more than two knowings (think of the "biblical" sense) - the real original sense is common to all in "first-hand experience", but there is no doubt that expecting simple single definitions of words to solve our problems is an error. For example, by analogy the know-how vs know-what confusion has a parallel in the questions why (explanation of how)? vs why (for what purpose)? and it goes on further if you unpick the many senses of "how".

My contention is that the know-what (of apparent facts) is in fact much shallower than the real business of know-how .... in all senses of the word how ... (Certainly KM should never be confused with know-what in the simple factual sense.)

These are all issues that are as old as philosophy and epistemology themselves.

Steven Warmoes said...

Indeed a valuable distinction.
But I do not think its a separation. Many solutions need both fields. Ex. in the Know What, you may follow what others blog or tweet, or write... But making sense out of it is Know How

Steven Warmoes
Coach in KM

Nick Milton said...

Steven, I think to an extent we are lead into that view by language - by the use of the word "know" in both contexts. If the words were different, we would see know-how and know-what as more different. After all, computers and almanacs "know what". Only people "know how".

Yang said...

I don't think Chinese language has the distinction. The language does have many words for "knowledge-about" and "know", but not for knowledge.

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