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What is knowledge?

Definitions of knowledge

According to Webster's Dictionary, knowledge is "the fact or condition of knowing something with familiarity gained through experience or association". In practice, though, there are many possible, equally plausible definitions of knowledge. A frequently used definition of knowledge is "the ideas or understandings which an entity possesses that are used to take effective action to achieve the entity's goal(s). This knowledge is specific to the entity which created it."

An understanding of knowledge requires some grasp of its relationship to information. In everyday language, it has long been the practice to distinguish between information — data arranged in meaningful patterns — and knowledge — which has historically been regarded as something that is believed, that is true (for pragmatic knowledge, that works) and that is reliable.

In recent times, theoretical objections to the concept of truth (e.g. by post-modernists) or to that of reliability (e.g. by positivists) have led to some blurring of the distinction. The interchangeable use of information and knowledge can be confusing if it is not made clear that knowledge is being used in a new and unusual sense, and can seem unscrupulous insofar as the intent is to attach the prestige of (true) knowledge to mere information. It also tends to obscure the fact that while it can be extremely easy and quick to transfer information from one place to another, knowledge is sticky: it is often very difficult and slow to transfer knowledge from person to another. (C.f. the World Bank's 1998 World Development Report on Knowledge for Development which begins with the false assertion that knowledge travels at the speed of light.)

In assessing attempts to define knowledge it can be helpful to remember that the human mind has often been seen as capable of two kinds of knowledge — the rational and the intuitive.

In the West, intuitive knowledge has often been devalued in favor of rational scientific knowledge, and the rise of science has even led to claims that intuitive knowledge is not really knowledge at all. However, recognition of the difficulties inherent in transferring knowledge from one person to another has tended to highlight the importance of tacit knowledge e.g. notably in the writings of Polanyi (1975), and Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995).

In an effort to distinguish knowledge from mere information, some Western analysts (Karl Erik Sveiby) have tried defining “knowledge” as wholly tacit (i.e. as capacity in action), thus consigning what others have considered as explicit knowledge to mere information

In the East, the tradition has been to celebrate the importance of the intuitive, in comparison with the rational. The Upanishads for instance speak about a higher and a lower knowledge, and associate lower knowledge with the various sciences.

Chinese philosophy has emphasized the complementary nature of the intuitive and the rational and has represented them by the archetypal pair yin and yang.

Debates about the meaning of knowledge have continued for thousands of years, and seem likely to continue for some time to come.


Nonaka, Ikujiro and Hirotaka Takeuchi. The Knowledge-Creating Company : How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation. New York : Oxford University Press, 1995.

Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension, 1975.

World Development Report: Knowledge for Development (World Bank, 1998-99, Washington D.C).

Stephen Denning, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations. Boston, London, Butterworth Heinemann, October 2000.

Stephen Denning: The Leader's Guide to Storytelling (Jossey-Bass, 2005) chapter 8.

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