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December 06, 2005

The Four Names for Knowledge

One of the problems of actually doing knowledge-management-type-of-things is the fact that the English language has only one word for knowledge.

The Romance languages have at least two, as does German and Slavic. But the best example of how a culture uses language to distinguish the varied types of knowledge that we use in the world is Classical Greek.

As described in a mis-titled but excellent book, Tacit Knowledge in Organizations, by Phillipe Baumard, Aristotle and Plato had at least four words at their disposal to discuss what we make do with only one overused word.

The Greeks had Episteme, from which we derive Epistomolgy. This word meant repeatable rules, codified and universal. In other words, Science. Then they had Techne, from which we get technology. This term meant something like craft, or capability The though being that person so endowed would be able to DO something that was neither pure thought or pure manual activity.A third term was Phronesis, which we would probably understand as emotional intelligence, or social skills. Its what good managers, therapists, and teachers have,. A very interesting fourth term was Metis, which has no current term but is closest to savvy, cunning or street smart.

The Greeks mention that Ulysses had this skill, and one of my heroes, Isaiah Berlin, wrote this is what great politicians like Churchill and Roosevelt (whom Berlin knew) had-the almost intuitive skill to rapidly understand a difficult situation and make sense of it.

Some of you may think that this is just hair-splitting or worse- after all- information, knowledge, data, aren’t they really all the same? Or close to the same?

Well, no they are not.

And I have seen (no exaggeration here) tens of billions of dollars wasted on building knowledge "systems" or operations that were supposed to make an organizations knowledge more effective or efficient but really only reformatted data or documents. Imagine if the poor executives who build these monuments to futility had read the Classics in college instead of engineering? Perhaps they might have saved their organizations from such worthless efforts?

Posted by Larry Prusak on December 6, 2005 11:50 PM | Permalink

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Larry, this is a great and helpful observation. The problem is a deeper one, though, that goes beyond the mere use of words.

Knowledge is an abstract concept and to conceptualize it we use several metaphors. We conceptualize KNOWLEDGE AS A THING when we talk about ‘sharing, knowledge’, or ‘storing knowledge’. We conceptualize KNOWLEDGE AS AN ORGANISM and AS A FLUID when we talk about how ‘knowledge grows when it flows’. An article that will be published in the next Journal of Intellectual Capital (Andriessen, 2006) will show that there are at least 22 different metaphors that we use to think and talk about knowledge. The metaphors are not merely a matter of language, they shape the way we think about knowledge, the way we define problems about knowledge, and the solutions we apply to knowledge, as your example about ‘knowledge systems’ shows. KNOWLEDGE AS INFORMATION is the guilty one in this case…

Which brings us to the question: what metaphors are useful to use under what circumstances?

Andriessen, D. (2006) On the metaphorical nature of intellectual capital: A textual analysis; Journal of Intellectual Capital, Special issue: ‘Becoming Critical’ 7(1), 2006, Guest Eds., David O’Donnell, Lars Bo Henriksen & Sven C. Voelpel

Posted by: Daniel Andriessen | December 12, 2005 05:24 AM

The old adage is "You can't manage what you can't measure". Perhaps, the new adage should be "You can't manage what you can't describe". After all, measurement is but a quantitative description.

Posted by: KK Aw | December 11, 2005 09:12 AM


Baumard's book is indeed a very interesting read and helps one to understand the unique mix of context, metal models, groupthink and politics that make KM so hard.

My thinking is, forming, testing, sharing, distinctions is a key community knowledge practice. The more we leverage language, the more we can finesse our sense-making, pattern recognition and understanding.

Posted by: Denham | December 10, 2005 04:25 PM

I think the distinctions are interesting. But I fear that as Gautam has indicated, imprecise language would not save us from the huge number of KM cockups we have seen.

Managing documents (and selling systems that do so) is so much easier than taking the time to understand and appreciate the skills & wisdom required to make good decisions.

It's not laziness so much as a peculiar mix of cowardice & greed.

Posted by: Matt Moore | December 8, 2005 10:24 PM

Larry, I think you are right on the mark here. There is much confusion in the KM literature over the meaning and importance of the term "knowledge". Using the ancient Greek distinctions would be invaluable in resolving some of these problems. A number of KM academics have made this point, most notably David Schwartz in the recent Encyclopedia of Knowledge Management (which you wrote the Foreword to).

Just to be pedantic, I'm not sure that the concept of Metis was specifically in the work of Plato or Aristotle. It is also valuable to look at the original (translated) quotation from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, in which the other terms are defined:

Let us begin, then, from the beginning, and discuss these states once more. Let it be assumed that the states by virtue of which the soul possesses truth by way of affirmation or denial are five in number, i.e. art (technical skill) (Téchné), scientific knowledge (Epistémé), practical wisdom (prudence) (Phrónésis), philosophic wisdom (wisdom) (Sophía), intuitive reason (intelligence)(Noûs); we do not include judgement and opinion because in these we may be mistaken.

I think you also have to be a little careful in drawing substantive conclusions about the nature of knowledge from looking at these Greek concepts. This is because these concepts were embedded in a particular philosophical framework, which is teleological and bound up with certain concepts of human virtue.

I'm also a tad sceptical about how the broader KM community would react to yet another set of definitions of knowledge. Do we really need new definitions?

Posted by: Jeremy Aarons | December 7, 2005 07:09 PM

I think greater precision in language is always a good thing. The Greeks used at least three words for love (agape, phileo, eros) to give much greater meaning to when they were used and the context in which they were used.

KM would benefit from analogous approaches. I've always thought that the data -> information -> knowledge classification approached this but these are used so interchangeably that it hasn't helped too much.

Posted by: Mike Sivertsen | December 7, 2005 12:56 PM

Actually Larry, no, they would not have. As you already pointed out in your post the various words have their English word equivalents.

We become blind to the other meanings as the organizations force us to make only one meaning. The means to save dollars.


Posted by: Gautam | December 7, 2005 05:38 AM

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