The Humpty Dumpty view of Knowledge

Keith May 3rd, 2007

“When I use a word it means exactly what I want it to mean.” 
    – Humpty Dumpty.

There has been further discussion at actKM about the definition of “knowledge”.  One contributor gave this definition: “Knowledge is solutions to problems”.  I disagree with this definition – I see it as too narrow.

This seems to ignore the use of knowledge in creativity and innovation, but it was further stated that these can also be viewed as just a different form of problem resolution.  Joe Firestone stated that “non-routine creative learning is a response to a problem.”  I struggle to accept this point of view.  This is stretching the meaning of “problem” a long way.  I do accept that creativity in the business world may be seen to be more limited than in pure art.  (Is it always?  Should it be?)

It seems to me that “problem” is usually used as a negative term (particularly by business decision-makers). It carries the linguistic image of something unpleasant that requires (possibly unpleasant) effort to resolve.  It is because of this baggage that we come up with encouragements to see “problems as opportunities” – we need another word to help us see the potentially positive side.

Even the use of “solution” can also lead to misunderstanding.  To view all challenges as problems that require solutions is to deny the complex nature of much of our work.  This is at the heart of the Cynefin framework.  Sometimes the best application of knowledge is to make small interventions, not necessarily to provide a complete solution.

It is often difficult to precisely define words in the English language – they can be very slippery beasts.  I prefer to be less prescriptive in my definition of knowledge, and I would not want to restrict it to (my view of) the more common understanding of “problem”. 

To be useful, a word must be understood in the same way by both the speaker and the listener.  Of course, if you explain what you mean, then you can agree on definitions, but this takes time – a luxury we don’t always have…

“The chief cause of problems is solutions.” 
    – Eric Sevareid, 1970

3 Responses to “The Humpty Dumpty view of Knowledge”

  1. yolaon 14 May 2007 at 8:38 pm

    Knowledge is what you do with a fact.

    Fact.
    Learn the fact
    —> knowledge.

    eg. It’s summer and the sky is blue.
    Oh – I remember thinking that the sky is blue in summer.
    Now it becomes knowledge because you remember it to use another time.

    What do you think?

  2. Keithon 15 May 2007 at 11:27 am

    Yola – Is that you? Good to hear from you – it’s been a while…

    That is certainly one definition of knowledge. It perhaps doesn’t define the whole picture – it focuses on tacit or internalised knowledge. There is debate about other forms of knowledge. However, I still maintain that what is most important in any discussion of such things as “knowledge” is to develop an agreed definition for the purpose of the discussion, and work from there.

  3. [...] Following on from the “definition of knowledge” debate on actKM, there has now been discussion of the various “linear models” that relate knowledge to data, information and more.  One of the classics is: Data – Information – Knowledge – Wisdom [...]

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