Knowledge And Information

The best starting point for me is my understanding that knowledge only resides in our minds. Whenever we seek to share or transfer knowledge, we create information as the means of sharing it, and often store the information in some other medium.

These are 'fuzzy' concepts. As soon as you start to draw a line in the sand you will find exceptions and examplars that do not fit. Part of the problem lies with the time dimension and the evolution of personal knowledge. What I take as new knowledge today may become information after the passage of time. Another aspect is the duality between object & process.

What we need to do is negotiate & understand the 'core' attributes and processes we attach to each of these concepts. HeuristicRules and patterns are interesting concepts here, they have characteristics of both knowledge & information. What happens when you have a document with a large amount of social negotiation, a long history of tradition and supporting infrastructure. Is the US constitution information or knowledge?

Why is this distinction important anyway?

What KnowledgeAndInformationDistinctionExceptions do you see which do not fit? Patterns, personal heuristics, boundary objects, documents with extreme reification and which have stood the test of time.

Exceptions and exemplars are fine. They help in developing understanding. We each have a mental model of what information is and what knowledge is. Our different mental models and assumptions become stumbling blocks to sharing our knowledge and understanding about knowledge, so we seek to make distinctions, provide examples, and to develop a shared understanding which can provide a basis for discussing other topics.

For what it's worth, I would view the US Constitution as information not knowledge.

As for why is it important to make these distinctions, many people are seeking to understand the distinctions between InformationManagement and KnowledgeManagement, and their starting point will be their understanding of the distinctions between information and knowledge.

How would you classify the 'knowledge' content of the Bible, the Koran, Vedas or the Upanishad?

Do you treat all documents as information irrespective of their role as boundary objects, their reification, their degree of social acceptance and their 'ability' to impart learning?

My point is there is no clear fixed boundary between information and knowledge, this line depends on your personal frame, how you negotiate the understanding within your circle, it becomes less and less of an issue as you become more comfortable with the core concepts and their application. What you call information today may seem more like knowledge in a few years time. My message is don't get hung on labels and definitions, this is a line drawn in quick sand, soon to erased as the tide races in.

Please give one example showing the usefulness of this "distinction". See KnowledgeContentOfDocuments

In reflecting on this discussion, it occurred to me that we had not considered the distinction between TacitKnowledge and ExplicitKnowledge?. Perhaps, tacit knowledge exists in the human mind only, and in making tacit knowledge explicit, we seek to codify our tacit knowledge, thereby creating information in the process.

Seems the critical distinction here is "Can we have explicit knowledge at all?" if 'explicit knowledge' morphs to information soon as you represent it, I wonder how you treat stories, dialog scripts and reflections on what you know. If you represent what you know, and then look, read or listen to it, have you not captured a portion your knowledge for yourself?

Yes, IsExplicitKnowledgeSynonymousWithInformation?. I would contend that a story is information whether transmitted in oral or written form. But just because explicit knowledge is information (if this is really so), does not mean that information is explicit knowledge. So, no they are not synonymous. Bears further thought and exploration, heh?
Perhaps this quote from Maturana and Varela's book The Tree of Knowledge (p.196) will contribute, although it starts off a little abstract: "Our discussion has led us to conclude that, biologically, there is no 'transmitted information' in communication. Communication takes place each time there is behavioral coordination in a realm of structural coupling. This conclusion is surprising only if we insist on not questioning the latest metaphor for communication... [in which] communication is something generated at a certain point. It is carried by a coduit (or tube) and is delivered to the receiver at the other end. Hence, there is a something that is communicated, and what is communicated is an integral part of that which travels in the tube. Thus, we usually speak of the "information" contained in a picture, an object, or more evidently, the printed word. ... According to our analysis, this metaphor is basically false. ... Each person hears what he hears according to his own structural determination. ... The phenomenon of communication does not depend on what is transmitted, but on what happens to the person who receives it. And this is a very different matter from 'tranmitting information.'"

The structural coupling stuff is new to me, but the rest I had mostly already worked out. Shannon's works about information content start with "assuming a constrained channel." That means one starts with programs on each side that already have a shared vocabulary and timing. A certain voltage is or isn't there at a predetermined moment. Real communication in the world does not operate on a constrained channel. The programs (people) on each side have not agreed on vocabulary and timing. What is received is a function of the state of the listener, not the state of the channel or the sender. So a book does not contain "information", except at the lowest level of tranmission (letters, which we might temporarily assume are understood by the reader). I, for sure, get no information from the Koran - if it is written in ArabicLanguage. I get some, smallish amount from an English version.

If information is internally determined at the receiver, what does this say about knowledge? -- AlistairCockburn

Alistair, thanks. What you have contributed creates some interesting challenges. For example, if the Koran was stored on a computer then we would certainly call it data and some would call it information. There are a range of information management processes we would apply to it. Yet, it is not information to you, as you say!

Perhaps, we need to make distinctions between information when stored externally (to our mind) and information when used by an individual or stored internally (in our mind). When I tell you that London is the capital of the United Kingdom, is that information or knowledge? When I look up an atlas and find out that Wellington is the capital of New Zealand, is that information or knowledge in the atlas, and is it information or knowledge in my mind, and now in your mind?

Going just a bit further, I think part of the problem is the looseness of the English language. When we talk about something being information to us, we are often commenting upon its relevance, usefulness, etc. When we talk about information in the data management, information management context, we are talking about information, irrespective of its relevance to us personally.

So information ain't information. And possibly, knowledge ain't knowledge?

There's more that can be drawn out of your comments, but I'll just go this far as a first step. -- PeterMurchland
I'd come to what is roughly the same conclusion: information received is measured by its effect on the receiver. It becomes knowledge when that effect is rich enough. -- DaveHarris
Here is something I wrote back in 1986, when I for sure wasn't thinking specifically about Shannon and information, and yet, I now use as a touchstone for the question of information. The question I have been carrying around for several years now is, "What is the information content of a twitch of the lips?" That got me to reread Shannon, and down a track that Maturana's quote finished for me. I'm still only mentally, not internally, convinced that a twitch of the lips has no "information content", so I'm now scanning for hints on how to characterize information content in terms on the internal state of the receiver. Maturana's quote helps here a bit.

 That little grimace
	you just made across the dinner table
 speaks volumes to me, 
 though it says nothing to the others around us. 
 You twisted your lips like that yesterday
	to show how you felt about that fellow
	who had behaved so awfully, when
	you were trying to be nice. 
 I quite agree. 
 Actually, he rather reminds me of the man
	on your left. I raise my eyebrows a hair
	and glance lightly in his direction. 
 From the stiffening of your top lip as you
	continue to chew, it is clear you think so too. 
 Oh, oh.	We've been spotted. 
 No matter. 
	Our conversation, although discovered, 
	will have no meaning to anyone else.

(... rest of append and several following somehow mangled and lost...)

Before we go to "wisdom" I wonder if we don't need to start with data. For me London being the capital of the United Kingdom might be data unless I had a purpose for knowing it then it might be information.

The concept of knowledge being marshalled to information is new to me. If knowledge is the capacity for effective action it seems to me that information preceeds knowledge.

I'd like some concrete examples of the distinctions between data, information, tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge.

-- Carol Gorelick
Information has to come from somewhere. If it comes from a conversation, the information giver must have had some knowledge to produce it or to write a document or make an artifact. Now if the information is supplied by an artifact, e.g. a digital sensor, the connection between knowledge and the information supplied becomes tenuous.

In this paper by Joe Helfer,, the author uses:

Data = 6 or blue or Australia or a phone#

Information = the data above refer to Adam

Knowledge = it's easier to reach Adam by telephone than e-mail

Wisdom = avoid communicating to Adam by e-mail

I think the distinctions do not go far engough here. Information is data + context + a trend e.g. monthly sales on a pie chart, knowledge is more than just a heuristic, i.e. how best to communicate with Adam, it is also why Adam prefers a phone, when e-mail will work, what to do if neither are available... and wisdom has ethical, longer-term and wider implications, e.g. Adam is unlikely to change his habits unless he gets a news boss.

Tacit knowledge = what we know but cannot easily explain, a skill like baking bread.

Explicit knowledge = information that will allow me to take effective action (after I have processed it using my tacit knowledge!). All knowledge has a tacit component.

The interesting players are "context", yours, mine and the artifacts, "understanding", is it knowledge or wisdom or something in-between? and "meaning", when does this change information into knowledge?, does group knowledge really exist?

This page seems to have been garbled a little. Here is my previous comment.

I have been struggling with these KnowledgeManagement terms for a while now, and here are the clearest and shortest defintions I found:

The one KM term I still don't have a good definition for is wisdom. See KnowledgeAndWisdom

-- YonatSharon

The Hebrew example for "Information" contains meaning to anyone who learns the alphabet. "H" comes after "G" and before "I", for example. Going even further, "H" had its origins in some early civilization iconic knowledge system (not sure which one) and, thus, has deeper meaning to an anthropologist and linguist. My awareness of that gives meaning to the quote even though I don't know Hebrew. Note: I just checked the OED and found a lengthy entry explaining the letter "H". Even "havel" is there, but not the others. An astute web searcher could probably find an online translation engine for the entire phrase. Actually it's from BookOfEcclesiastes 1: "vanity of vanities; all is vanity." --YonatSharon

Information is a slippery slope that needs serious intellectual discussion, since the word is used so loosely and is so common these days. It has more history and complexity than many think, especially if we factor in advances in "quantum information". It may or may not be a higher order concept than knowledge. For further consideration by other people, please see the Philosophy of Information site at

-- JohnCastledine
I have a worry about "Knowledge Management", at least as it is portrayed by such people as the DTI and software suppliers. At first, I had difficulty putting my finger on exactly what my worry was, but today's lunchtime stroll revealed it to me in a concise form.

The problem is that we have people making the world very complicated (e.g. welfare regulations, laws, taxation, bureaucratic rules, etc. etc.) and then they say: "you need some clever software to manage all this knowledge for you." But the right solution, the human solution, would be to make the rules so simple that even a welfare claimant could understand them.

I am convinced that people, even average unskilled people, have much greater abilities to manage knowledge in their own heads than any software tool I have ever seen. I know that things like Lotus Notes are very clever, and I have even used them (in the past), but they are not as clever as people.

What we really need is good people management - including training, development and succession planning - embedded in a culture which values the knowledge inside people's heads. I would rather have that than some messianic "system-to-come" which will manage all our knowledge for us.

There is a famous Peanuts cartoon in which a character is asked "Is there anything you would want to change, of what you did last year, knowing what you know now?" After some thought she replies "What do I know now?"

It is a characteristic of organizations that their managers say "this hospital (school, railroad, ...) would work perfectly, if it wasn't for the patients (pupils, passengers, ...). Aren't the knowledge management community just saying "our systems could answer everything, if it was only machines that asked the questions."

-- RobinWilson
CategoryKnowledge CategoryInformation

View edit of January 10, 2010 or FindPage with title or text search