Knowledge principles for government

What is the difference between knowledge and information? What is the difference between managing knowledge and managing information?

We all deal with large amounts of data on a daily basis, whether sifting through email at work or trying to remember the myriad passwords we’ve littered across the internet. This information needs to be managed in varying degrees.

Information is tangible and can be stored, protected and exploited in a controlled and structured environment, such as an Electronic Document and Records Management System (EDRMS). Knowledge, on the other hand, is more intangible, and therefore requires different approaches and strategies in order to manage and share it efficiently and effectively.

The value of knowledge is universally recognised; how to capture it and exploit it is less certain. The GKIM Knowledge Management Working Group (KMWG) – a cross-government group – has recently produced a set of Knowledge Principles as a companion to the previously published Information Principles.

Building on the Information Principles, the Knowledge Principles will ensure that civil servants can deliver the information we work with in a tangible way, while developing strategies and plans to improve how knowledge is captured, shared and nurtured within government departments.

Defining knowledge

The KMWG defines knowledge as: ‘a sum of experience, training, insight and education and is tacit, whereas information is tangible, captured, manipulated in information systems and subject to further interpretation’.

Knowledge is not information, and managing knowledge is not the same as managing information, although there is undoubtedly some crossover. For instance, information management principles may be applied to knowledge once it is captured.

Consider the difference between possessing natural leadership skills and attending a workshop on leadership skills. Leadership is a complex social construct, a mixture of various abstract characteristics such as charisma, resolve, decisiveness, and perhaps, humour. Leadership skills can be identified, captured, taught and practiced, but at its core leadership is a mix of inherent qualities perfected by an individual over time. Although not always straightforward, every effort should be made to capture and transfer tacit knowledge between individuals for the overall benefit of an organisation.

Knowledge sharing

Civil servants are responsible for retaining and sharing knowledge and using it to maximise productivity, avoiding re-work and wasting resources. By sharing knowledge we can weed out bad practices and avoid repeating any mistakes made by our predecessors.

Image of an illustrated Post Office poster featuring the words 'A penny for your thoughts..,'

Section of a Post Office poster, 1961 (catalogue reference: NSC 25/761 (6))

Experienced staff in government departments are a well of insight and intuition, workarounds and ‘knowhow’ – this knowledge must be identified and tapped. Knowledge transfer between experienced staff and less-experienced staff is key. This can happen through personal contact on a daily basis (once trust has been established), and by processes such as informal training, mentorship and exit interviews for staff leaving an organisation.

We have all experienced a senior member of staff leaving an organisation and taking precious knowledge with them – knowledge gained from their time spent in a role and particular to their experiences. The Knowledge Principles have been designed to guard against such loss and to ensure that knowledge can be captured, protected and shared within an organisation.

Purpose and direction

The Knowledge Principles have been set out to express truths to which all public sector organisations can subscribe.

The aim is to distill workplace experiences into lessons-learned exercises in order to increase productivity and contribute to organisational competence.

The principles are intended to be bold and challenging and to set directions. However, they are not intended to be directives.

The principles provide high-level foundations and therefore their scope is intentionally broad. They apply to all knowledge that is created and re-used by a UK public sector organisation. Organisations can vary in size and structure, as well as having bespoke internal practices and values – such dynamics can affect how knowledge sharing is interpreted and implemented.

The intention is that organisations across the public sector will become increasingly aligned in their use and management of knowledge, drawing their own local strategy and practices from a common set of principles and best practices.

7 comments

  1. David Matthew says:

    Having read through the documents it seems to me to be over-complicated in ‘Civil Service-speak’ in other words why take 1000 words to say something which is simpler to say in a few words or sentences. It would of course help, if the Cabinet Office could spell the word ‘Governance’ (not ‘Governnace’). The issue of people leaving taking their knowledge with them is/has always been a problem, when do you have time to write it down?. To me this sounds very much like a set of principles/directives from the Thatcher era. Knowledge of an individual cannot be tapped by ‘bold’ initiatives and the loss of ‘experience’ and often leads to errors, although that cannot excuse the wrongful release of records. The whole reason why departments created records in the first place was to record history for themselves and as an addition for the public eventually, otherwise there would be chaos and ‘Sir Humphrey’ would not be happy.

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  3. Dion Lindsay says:

    Hi David

    I disagree with you. People absorb what they read in different ways, and the shortest way of expressing something isn’t always the most effective for everybody. I’m glad to see the Civil Service is grasping the nettle that knowledge is different from information. The hard part is going to be finding ways of managing knowledge. I’m not sure, for example, that useful knowledge can always be managed as an asset (see http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/information-management/manage-information/planning/knowledge-principles/).

    1. Margaret Gair says:

      I agree knowledge can’t be managed as a set of assets and the Principles try to make that clear. Knowledge resides in individuals, and while some knowledge can be captured and turned into information assets, good knowledge management relies on collaboration, sharing and seeking, which is primarily a behavioural challenge. We have active KM forums in government and we recognise that not everyone learns in the same way, but a written set of Principles provides a common basis from which Departments can kick off their knowledge management strategies. And good KM is not about “writing it down” – it’s more about ensuring people share knowledge and learn from each other and using that knowledge to update guidance, processes etc. It should be dynamic and interactive. Information and records management are allied but separate disciplines.

  4. Alison North says:

    Mm – David and Dion make interesting points Knowledge – information. Yes there is a difference to those in the “profession” but to most staff and probably most people, data records and information are all the same – knowledge well that’s Stephen Hawking! How much does it really matter to organisations what definition we give to these words – we just need to remember the purpose of the data, information, records and use / manage it appropriately.

  5. Ian Pearson says:

    More important I feel is ensuring the information/knowledge call it whatever, is reliabale and can be trusted. The world would be a better place with half the knowledge/information that we have now if was guaranteed beyound doubt to be accurate. Bliss

    Ian

  6. Susan says:

    It’s good to see that the National Archives is highlighting the value of knowledge once more. This topic goes in cycles. Last time it was in 2008 with ‘Information Matters’.
    My contribution to public sector knowledge capture has been to create the Knowledge Maverick website (www.knowledgemaverick.com) This was based on my knowledge management experience over the past 8 years.
    It is a free resource and designed to be useful as well as entertaining. The word ‘fun’ appears from time to time.

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