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The miracle of Knowledge Management: Managing ‘Justified true belief’

This is an exerpt adapted  from an upcoming article for ICICKM 2010 in Hong Kong

What is knowledge?  How many articles, talks, blogs, you name it, start discussions on Knowledge Management with this question?  How many then hone in on Plato’s ‘Justified true belief’.  Really?  Is that what we as KM practitioners actually do, manage ‘justified true belief”?  Is that how knowledge is operationalised in organisations?  I disagree and this is my argument…

Theorists have identified a lack of definition as a weakness in the KM field; where too many theorists fail to establish a situated definition of knowledge, and thereby take an overly simplified view of its economic value. It is observed as a historical issue with Allix challenging the field to answer questions of what knowledge is so that it might be possible to know what is to be managed. He states that theorists seem ‘content to leave the problem of knowledge as something of a black box’ (p. 1). This is of particular relevance given the leaning of the field towards the operationalisation of knowledge for organisational value. This said, Alavi & Leidner have also made it clear that there is no need to attempt to engage in debate as to the locus of philosophical knowledge definition as it is not ‘a determinant factor in building the knowledge-based theory of the firm nor in triggering researcher and practitioner interest in managing organisational knowledge’ (p. 109).

Theorists argue that there is no single business definition of knowledge. Knowledge in its epistemological form is frequently referred to as ‘justified true belief’ based on Plato’s Theaetetus  – ‘Epistemology’ being defined as the theory of knowledge.  

Expanding on this…What is interesting here for me is that this definition has been used by Nonaka as the foundation to his SECI model, but this definition of knowledge is seen as being grounded in positivism, where our field is  actually constructivist by nature.

It has also been extended to reflect fallible knowledge, such as human experience, to become ‘undefeated justified true belief’. This idea of knowledge as justified true belief has been philosophically disputed by Gettier who believed that there are instances where people can have justified true belief that is based on a falsehood, which therefore cannot be accepted as knowledge. It has also been described as, ‘The sum of what is known’ (Oxford,  p.491) or, ‘…a product of human reflection and experience’ (Roth, p.33). In recent times it has been defined as ‘information combined with experience, context, interpretation and reflection’ (Kulkarni, p. 85). Wilson on the other hand states:

‘Knowledge involves the mental processes of comprehension, understanding and learning that go on in the mind and only in the mind, however much they involve interaction with the world outside the mind and interaction with others’ (p. 2)


It is also said to be culturally, historically and socially bound, which suggests it to be open to interpretation according to the situated reality of the individual or collective.

Others present an ontological position suggesting that knowledge exists in three states: ‘Knowledge-as-data’, ‘Knowledge-as-meaning’ and ‘Knowledge-as-practice’ – ‘ontology’ being defined as a specification of a conceptualisation. It is also said to be part of a flow or evolution process: ‘Data – Information – Knowledge – Understanding – Wisdom’, though this has been suggest to be inverse, where knowledge comes before information can be constructed. It is also suggested that this flow is propagated by technology literature. The definitions to support the aspects of this hierarchy are illusive with research involving 45 leading scholars from 16 countries providing 130 variations. This could have been greater if the sample of scholars had included representatives outside of what could be defined as ‘western’ society. Alavi & Leidner  present a popular view that ‘data is raw numbers and facts, information is processed data, and knowledge is authenticated information’ (p. 109). Others posit that data exists in activity, knowledge in the actors, and information as a mediator between the two. They also see ‘understanding’ and ‘wisdom’ to be higher states of knowledge that are founded in purposeful action. It would also seem necessary to differentiate between ‘knowledge’ and ‘knowing’ with key theorists succinctly stating that knowledge exists within the human act of knowing, which can be seen as knowledge in action.

Wilson seems to make an important differentiation between knowledge and information from an organisational perspective by positing that the externalisation of what we know outside of the mind constitutes information. Although Chaim states that if this position is correct then KM might as well be expunged from the field of Information Science. Chaim asks ‘is Albert Einstein’s famous equation “E=MC2” information or knowledge?’ (p. 479). Already at this early stage it is possible to see issues that could signpost potential problems for our field.

The most popular theorist in the KM field is Nonaka, being the most cited author in KM literature between 1998 and 2007, over 50% higher than his closest peer, Davenport. Nonaka argues there to be two fundamental types of knowledge, tacit and explicit – Explicit knowledge being described as ‘knowing that’, or codifiable, and tacit knowledge as ‘knowing how’; knowledge that exists within the mind of the individual or group collective and therefore by nature is difficult to articulate or extract. This pervasive KM view of knowledge as being either tacit or explicit is perpetuated from the seminal work of Nonaka & Takeuchi, whose SECI (Socialisation, Externalisation, Combination, Internalisation) model, utilising Plato’s definition of knowledge, is founded upon the seminal work of Polanyi. The work of Nonaka & Takeuchi receives critical treatment from Wilson, who suggests that the authors misinterpreted or manipulated the founding work of Polanyi. Polanyi states that tacit knowledge is inexpressible, whereas the core of Nonaka & Takeuchi’s work relies on the conversion of tacit to explicit knowledge. Wilson suggests that Nonaka & Takeuchi are referring to implicit knowledge, which is the demonstration of expressible knowledge. Wilson further posits that explicit knowledge is mere information and therefore we are not speaking of tacit and explicit knowledge, but only knowledge and information. Ironically, Nonaka et al. posit that ‘The Knowledge Management that academics and people talk about often means just ‘information management’’ (p. 6).

Alavi et al.  also propose that the interpretation of Nonaka & Takeuchi’s work  can lead to the conclusion that tacit knowledge holds a higher value than explicit knowledge. The authors suggest that without the building blocks of explicit knowledge tacit knowledge cannot exist. Citing Polyani they state that ‘tacit knowledge forms the background necessary for assigning the structure to develop and interpret explicit knowledge’ (p. 112). The apparent value of tacit knowledge has led some authors to reason that it is prioritising the individual over the team or group. This would not seem to be correct as Nonaka et al. advocate socialisation in the knowledge process.

In short, Wilson’s work fundamentally questions the foundations of popular KM theory, as developed by Nonaka & Takeuchi, which suggests a need to look beyond the definition of knowledge as presented within the SECI framework when developing an understanding of its value as a resource. Though the work of Nonaka & Takeuchi can be debated, from the aspect of knowledge classification, it cannot be disregarded given Nonaka’s popularity in the field. The work of these authors appears to be seminal and much of their language of SECI appears to have influenced theorists throughout the field.

Wilson exposes the potential of KM to become orientated towards Information Management, though this is refuted, based on his foundational reasoning, by authors such as Chaim, but he fails to define what drives organisations to invest time and money in what could be seen as an ambiguous undertaking. His dramatic article ‘The nonsense of Knowledge Management’ may be perceived as true, but the core essence of organisational value that exists at the heart of KM is understated or even missed in his work. It could be suggested that the reason for this apparent weakness is a failure to provide an ontological definition of knowledge as suggested earlier’know.

It is in the search for an ontological definition of knowledge that aligns with organisational value drivers that a more appropriate classification appears to emerge: what Holsapple refers to as the ‘Primary’ types of knowledge: ‘Know What’, descriptive knowledge; ‘Know How’, procedural knowledge; ‘Know Why’, reasoning knowledge. Holsapple’s approach appears to originate from the work of Ryle (1949) who suggests that ‘knowing what’ is the declarative knowledge that provides an understanding of facts and ‘knowing how’ is the procedural knowledge that provides understanding of how to do things. This in turn would seem to be drawn from the Aristotle view of knowledge where ‘Episteme’ is seen as ‘knowing what’ and ‘Techne’ is seen as ‘knowing how’. Ryle’s work is expanded upon extensively by Mingers  in his discussion on the multiple forms of knowledge and truth – in which he moves beyond the discussion of ‘know what’, ‘know who’, ‘know how’, ‘know why’, knowledge to discuss Propositional Knowledge (‘generally explicit and propositional’ p.71) Experiential Knowledge (‘memories, some aspects of which may be tacit embodied’ p. 71) Performative Knowledge (personal experience or embodied knowledge) and Epistemological Knowledge (‘explicit, discursive, ‘objective’, open to debate’ p. 71). This research is synthesised, extended and defined by Alavi & Leidner (2001) who deliver a summary of knowledge taxonomies (see table below).

Knowledge Types Definitions Examples
Tacit Knowledge is rooted in actions, experience, and involvement in specific context Best means of dealing with specific customers
Cognitive tacit Mental models Individual’s belief on cause-effect relationships
Technical tacit Know-how applicable to specific work Surgery skills
Explicit Articulated, generalised knowledge [Know-what] Knowledge of major customers in a region
Individual Created and inherent in the individual [Know-who] Insights gained from a completed project
Social Created and inherent in collective actions of a group [Know-who] Norms for inter-group communication
Declarative Know-about What drug is appropriate for an illness
Procedural Know-how How to administer a particular drug
Causal Know-why Understanding when the drug works
Conditional Know-when Understanding when to prescribe the drug
Relational Know-with Understanding how the drug interacts with other drugs
Pragmatic Useful knowledge for the organisation Best practices, business frameworks, project experiences, engineering drawings, market reports


These ideas are observed in practice with research into the banking sector proposing there to be two distinct types of knowledge within the work place: ‘Technical’ knowledge (Epistime or know what), found in existing resources, which can be described as manuals or books; and ‘managerial knowledge’ (Techne or know how), which emerges when existing knowledge cannot provide answers due to a change in environment or context. This research  suggests that managerial knowledge is a new way for technical knowledge to be used through a process of enquiry into a new context. The research asserts that these knowledge forms are associated with two distinctive types of learning. The first being a ‘technical’ form dealing with processes and procedures. The second is a ‘managerial’ form, involving learning through experience.

It seems that there isn’t  a single definition of business knowledge. The variations shown here suggest knowledge to be illusive, which could bring into question the ability of an organisation to manage it as a resource. It therefore seems reasonable to suggest that KM processes cannot be delineated through simple definitions, such as ‘tacit and explicit’. Therefore the broader ontological definitions of ‘Know What’, ‘Know How’, ‘Know about’, ‘Know when’, ‘Know with’ and ‘Know Why’ presented by Holsapple, Mingers and delivered in a taxonomy by Alavi & Leidner, which would appear to be potentially representative of the resources that drive organisations, should be the focus for discussion on the management of knowledge resources in organisations.

Forget philosophical aspects such as ‘justified true belief’.  We, as KM practitioners, need to grasp the nettle and tackle the real issues of value creation. This view is supported by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), who state that ‘different kinds of knowledge are distinguishable in the knowledge-based economy including know-what, know-why, know-how and know-who’.  The knowledge economy, to be clear, is the term used to define an economy driven by the use, diffusion and creation of knowledge.

It’s time to stop trying to perform miracles. 

[Just another day and another point of view… It’s free, so take it for what it’s worth]

3 comments on “The miracle of Knowledge Management: Managing ‘Justified true belief’

  1. Baoman
    May 9, 2010

    Very nice, thank-you. The definition of knowledge is important. I’m asked at least once a week what it is which is why I use the knowledge wheel – see my blog posting – I’m may make another attempt using some material here. The table is excellent. A knowledge definition needs real examples because otherwise it makes no sense to most people.

    KM people don’t pay enough attention to T.D. Wilson’s criticism and they should. Interestingly, T.D. Willson published a paper in 1981 near the beginning of his academic career,

    Wilson, T. D. (1981). On user studies and information needs. Journal of Documentation, 37(1), 3-15. Retrieved 27 October, 2007 from

    Central to his argument is the ‘knowledge universe’, see Figure 2: The context of information seeking. He defines this as “The ‘universe of knowledge’, … is an abstract concept which embraces all knowledge-related objects, events and phenomena and, as such, clearly interacts with the ‘physical universe’.”

    Wilson makes excellent points in the 1981 article and the 2002 article on The nonsense of ‘knowledge management’. It seems rather a pity that between 1981 to 2002 he must have forgotten that he had started with that odd abstraction knowledge.

  2. Pingback: Is Social Business Just Knowledge Management 2.0? « Web E.sens

  3. D Pigott
    September 5, 2012

    You are aware aren’t you that it was a straw man argument in the Theaetetus? it’s at 201d, you can see it at the Perseus library. Socrates interlocutor, Theaetetus says that he once heard someone say that “knowledge is a true belief accompanied by a rational account”. Socrates goes on to trounce the definition 2340 years ago. Yet time and again people say that it is Plato’s definition.
    so when you say “Forget philosophical aspects such as ‘justified true belief’.”, that is a straw man made out of a straw man.

    The funny thing is that your preferred “‘Know What’, ‘Know How’” account is in fact a a genuinely philosophical one – first made by Gilbert Ryle in his presidential address to the Aristotelian Society in 1945.

So, what do you think?

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This entry was posted on May 8, 2010 by in Organisational Development.
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