The knowledge in Knowledge Management


Dr. Ghassan Dabbour

Head of Planning and Projects


In the course of my PhD research on knowledge management, I came across a leviathan of a mystery – the nature of knowledge itself. And being a philosophy enthusiast, I couldn’t help but let myself fall much deeper into the rabbit hole than I was supposed to. The hole is divergent, clashing, winding, and even contradictory at times. It is filled with a myriad of concepts and theories: mind; consciousness; belief; logic; intuition; intellect; perception; imagination; experience; information; data; and each with their own deep, colourful rabbit holes. From this marvellously disorienting depth I can confidently report that it is impossible to package the term ‘knowledge’ into a complete and ultimate definition. Granted, that shouldn’t be an excuse to wholly ignore the complexities and intricacy of describing the nature of knowledge in knowledge management publications.


The basics of knowledge management tell us that knowledge can be divided into two dimensions on a continuous back and forth spectrum: the explicit dimension, and the tacit dimension. Explicit knowledge is the kind of knowledge that is easy to codify in words and other nonverbal gestures, while tacit knowledge is the kind of knowledge that is more often inexpressible and beyond description. Hence it is your job as a knowledge management expert to practise the proper methodology to transform knowledge from one dimension to another. Knowledge management also tells us that all knowledge is rooted in the tacit dimension, with the explicit dimension being merely a shadowy linguistic/symbolic figure of what actually is. It seems that there can be no explicit knowledge that does not have its beginning in the tacit dimension, from which comes the perpetual knowledge management mantra of “we can know more than we can tell”.


Like all sensible (cynical!) researchers, I was highly skeptical of this idea. But let’s be honest here: if it is easy to understand, then it is easy to become popular – especially if your contributors and audiences are mostly corporatists whose concerns are more about bottom lines than epistemological conundra. It’s unfortunate then, that the nature of knowledge is much more complex than that. For starters, while it is common sense to assume that all knowledge is subjective and ultimately tacitly rooted, knowledge can (and clearly does) very well exist independent of your tacit mind. Just like there is knowledge that you can tacitly comprehend without explicitly understanding, there is knowledge you can explicitly understand without tacitly comprehending.


You can easily observe this fascinating phenomenon more often around academic circles than everyday social life. Consider for example the concept of infinity. We can mathematically prove that ∞ = -1/12 (called the Ramanujan Summation), but we can never actually tacitly comprehend what infinity really is. Likewise, we can discuss multiple space and time dimensions with uncanny complexity but never be able to imagine what 7D space really looks like. Here’s one more: quantum physics tells us that fundamental particles exist in superposition (two contradictory states of being) until observed. Go ahead, try to imagine that. Your tacit intuition will not take you far, but your explicit intellect can take you to places where you can literally create a technology out of this concept (quantum computing). It turns out that just like we can know more than we can tell, we can tell more than we can know.


The problem is, I believe, that the concept of ‘knowledge’ in knowledge management, while theoretical enough, lacks sufficient philosophical dialogue. And that irks me quite a bit. If you open any knowledge management study paper, you are statistically more likely to come across somewhat shallow epistemological discussions.  Tacit and explicit knowledge cannot be fully and justifiably explained without inviting terminologies and definitions related to consciousness, linguistics, and the mind. This however, challenges the conventional wisdom of ‘if it is not pragmatically simple, it will be rejected’. As a result, you read about superficial ‘knowledge transformation techniques’ that give you suspicious formulae capable of converting the not-so-sure-where-it actually-ends model of tacit knowledge into a not-sure-where-it-actually-begins model of explicit knowledge. The symptoms of the damage are not just philosophical, but also as a result (ironically) practical. Practitioners of knowledge management will tell you that their real task is actually to deploy the right tools and techniques to complement tacit with explicit knowing, and not seek to transform them into one another.


I guess what I’m trying to say is, let’s normalise the practice of delving deeper into philosophical writings of epistemology when composing a knowledge management publication. It’s not fair to discount the fascinating complexities of the mystery of knowledge for the sake of a simplicity and a pragmatism that it ultimately fails to attain.




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