Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Knowledge Management, a term lost in translation

Here's another post from the archives, which makes the case that much of the confusion around Knowledge Management may be due to an uncharacteristic deficiency in the English Language. 



Lost in TranslationKnowledge Management has always been in a state of confusion. 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, acquaintance, 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.

Between these 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 acquaintance and capability; 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.  It is the marshalling of facts. 

Unfortunately, although it is "Savoir" that gives Power, Knowledge Management is too often translated as Connaitre (Gestion de Connaisance, Wissensmanagement, etc). The acquaintance and competence is lost in the lists of facts.

Two meanings in one word

English usualy has so many words, reflecting subtle variations in meaning. With the word "Knowledge", however, we have two meanings hidden in the one word; and as an outworking, we have two views of Knowledge Management. We have on the one hand a meaning that carries connotations of power, economy and capability, and on the other a discipline that all too often focuses on orgainsing information.  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 less confusing. 

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