Information and Knowledge Compared (Snowden)

Been a very popular discussion on actKM over the past few days on that hoary chestnut of a topic – the differences between information and knowledge, and whether the IM department in an organisation should have carriage over knowledge management.

Earlier this evening (my time here in Dubai), Dave wrote a great post explaining his views of the differences and I thought I would record them here (as I am terrible at trying to find things later in the emails).  It articulated far better than I could many of my views on the matter.

Lets address the question of knowledge and information afresh, taking your latest will elaborate working below.

Firstly let me make it clear that it is not an either/or between a position (i) they are mutually exclusive concepts and (ii) they are a superset/subset one of the other.  Some knowledge can be partially represented as information (and reused as such), some cannot.  As you know I dislike the DIKW model as it implies a hierarchy, and a KI model would be equally bad.   So let me assert a different position.

1 – I am happy with the general concept that information is a form of structured data which is intended to inform in a communication process of some type.  This may be pull-push, direct, indirect etc.

2 – I see no utility in statements that information is knowledge that leads to action and the like – all basic variants of DIKW.

3 – I do see utility in understanding the different between what it means to manage knowledge and what it means to manage information.  I normally do that with a metaphor of the difference between using a london taxi (knowledge) and a map (information) to get around London.    The map is data which has been structured to inform and if I share sufficient context with the map maker then it informs me and I can take action on it.   I can also get a taxi where not only has the taxi driver internalised the map, but lots of other things as well.  There is for example evidence of significant changes in the Hippocampus in London Taxi Drivers as a result of the two plus years of training they go through.   Compete with a taxi driver (as a map user with a hire car) and you will loose.  The map may get you there, but the assumption of shared context can be dangerous.  I once used a map in New York and almost got mugged for exactly that reason.   Its like the point on french cuisine – you may have the recipe but that is just a starting point it is not complete of itself.

4 – knowledge enables me to interpret information.  If I acquire knowledge of management accounting then a chart of accounts informs me, if I have no such knowledge then it is data.  Knowledge management this has, as one of its primary tasks the creation of sufficient shared knowledge to enable the use of information.

5 – a large body of knowledge requires more than information in the form of recipes, it may take years of experience (often of tolerated failure) for the brain to acquire sufficient patterns to make sense of the world.  It may require the muscular and other sensory systems to adapt and evolve.   I can give you a book on how to plaster a wall and the right tools but you will make a mess of the job (I know this have conducted some controlled experiments with people who advocated your position in the past).

So overall this is a complex issue.  Knowledge and Information work in different ways and with each other.  Two who options you pose are both wrong.

Now if you drop down to a near signal approach (which I think Joe is doing as well but not in the sense of Shannon that is a difference between you) then the concept of information becomes meaningless outside the context of biology.  Yes all cells exchange information but at this level all things are in effect information processors of various types.   The reason the language is used differently in management and social systems is that information is a useful concept, considered as data taken through a process of abstraction to the point of codification.  So I think if you take that position then your approach is vulnerable to a reductio ad absurdum counter argument.

Overall the information and knowledge are different but overlapping concepts that need to be distinguished.  The management of knowledge is a function of all aspects of an organisation.  The management of structured and codified information is the responsibility of the IT or IM department.  By linking the two in the way you have suggested you encourage the view that knowledge can be codified information which as I said before is not only wrong but downright dangerous.

Dave Snowden
Founder & Chief Scientific Officer
Cognitive Edge Pte Ltd

Now blogging at



6 Responses to Information and Knowledge Compared (Snowden)

  1. Matthew Rees says:

    Posts like this remind me why I dropped out of ActKM and stopped reading Cognitive Edge. It is patronising and vacuous, the attempted triumph of bluster over argument. Some of us are not fooled.

  2. Matthew,

    This post by Dave was part of a (very extended) exchange between him and myself.

    In terms of content, it’s one of his less objectionable posts, but your description of his tone as being “patronising and vacuous, the attempted triumph of bluster over argument” pretty much exactly sums up how I feel at the end of the debate.

  3. Dave Snowden says:

    You two need to grow up; yes I know that is a patronising statement but its kind of deserved given the vacuous bluster of your two comments 🙂

  4. My latter comment on the actKM listserv complemented everyone on the civility of the discussion there, even though there was quite a degree of disagreement and frustration. I’d like any discussion here to be similarly civil, please.
    My view is that insights can be gained from the most unlikely sources, even those who we disagree with or we find objectionable.

  5. The Middle East must be benefitting from that wonderful brand of Naismith diplomacy. Perhaps you might bring it to bear on some thorny political issues over there ?

    Given you’ve negotiated challenges here in the VPS, the Mid East should be a breeze !

  6. […] came across a post on Knowledge Futures quoting Dave Snowden, about knowledge as an interpreter in the abililty to turn data into […]

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