6. Information is not knowledge (Ten Things about Agile)

I was giving a talk at the Business Analyst Conference on Ten Things about Agile. You can still watch the talk on Youtube if you like. One particular important point I wanted to make is that information is not knowledge.


It is based on the concept called “knowledge worker” initially coined by Peter Drucker and brought to my attention by Joerg Dirbach and Rainer Grau, two colleagues of mine at Zuehlke Engineering.

So knowledge worker’s main capital is knowledge and they spend a lot of their time “thinking” (e.g. architects, analysts, software engineers, scientists, lawyers).


But what is knowledge exactly?

It’s main properties are:

1) Link information items and make them available as knowledge

2)  Use this knowledge and apply it

3) Knowledge is context specific and has it’s relevance only in a social context (e.g. a project)


There are two forms of knowledge!

The fact that London is the capital of the UK can be seen as explicit knowledge that can be easily written down, transmitted and understood by another person. However, the ability to speak English is not known explicitly and can’t be transferred to other people so easily. It is called tacit knowledge. The same applies to facts about a person (e.g. name, birthday) which can be stated explicit wherever describing/recognizing his face would also be hard and can just be achieved by tacit knowledge.

So explicit knowledge:
– can be articulated, codified and stored
– transferred easily
– is information contained in encyclopaedias or requirements specifications
– can be used as check-list or reference

However tacit knowledge:
– is hard to express but easier to show
– has too be learned, comes from practical experience
– allows us to perform efficient, we act without explicit reflection of the principle or rules involved


Tacit knowledge to solve complex problems

It is widely known that most of today’s software projects are complex problems (many stakeholders, changing context, huge number of variables) which can not be solved by plan driven approaches. People working on such a project have to sense emergent practices by using agile principles (more later in a separate article). They learn together, work close with customers and build up a very efficient form of knowledge which is the tacit knowledge.

Tacit knowledge comes not for free, as it has to be learned. But as soon as you know how to do something (like using Outlook for writing an e-mail) you are very efficient.


Knowledge transfer

It is not possible to “just” write down tacit knowledge and transfer is to the next person  (what we so often try to do with requirements specifications). Such a document holds only information (e.g. grammar of a language, vocabulary, phrases, etc.) but is by no mean tacit knowledge that can be use in an efficient way (in this case, speak the language).

So knowledge transfer is best done by collaborative work rather than writing down information.



2 comments to “6. Information is not knowledge (Ten Things about Agile)”
  1. This is an important topic that is often overlooked, thank you for this article.

    I would like to comment, because I think tacit knowledge is more difficult to grasp. After all, you can very well externalize English. The bookshops are full of word books and grammars. Of course it is easier to teach someone what the UK capital is – but this is just because this piece of information is smaller than the information you need to know to speak English. If you wanted to teach someone the names of the 5,000 most populous cities in the world, you would take at least as long as teaching the first 5,000 words of English. But you are right, there is something tacit in using a language that you don’t have in knowing mere factual information. I can’t tell you what that is in a short statement, because it is not that easy to externalize.

    To give an explanation, I would like you to answer a question: What is the largest city in Indonesia? (I am assuming that you have an average to good knowledge of Geography, and you haven’t traveled Indonesia extensively. If you have, choose another country you have no particular relationship with). You probably don’t know much about the country, you might struggle to name more than 2 or 3 cities in Indonesia at all, you might not have an idea how many people live in Jakarta, but you still have a good chance to come up with the correct answer. This is due to knowledge. You probably know the the capital (factoid you kept from your school days), you also know that for most countries the largest city is the capital and there is your answer. Even if nobody ever told you explicitly that there is this relationship between large city and capital, you will probably have figured this out by yourself. You have traveled to some countries, you have looked up the sizes of some cities in the past, you have heard the names of some capitals on the news and you connected the dots.

    Now here is the difference. You can easily teach someone without any prior knowledge what the biggest cities in all the countries on the planet are. It probably doesn’t even take long for this person to beat you in naming biggest city by country, either. But then I would like to know, which capital city is furthest away from London as the crow flies. You would probably come up with the correct one, or at least one that is very far away, while the person with no prior knowledge will have no idea, even though by now he knows all those big cities.

    The point is that you can’t teach knowledge. Knowledge is the ability to make predictions on things you don’t know by inference of related things that you do know, and to cope well with situations that are new to you.
    To achieve this, you need three things: Know a sufficient amount of facts (which can be taught), some explicit rules on how to connect dots (which can be taught), and the skill to connect the dots in ways that never have been made explicit to you (which, by definition, can’t be taught, and takes experience).

  2. Thank you very much Ernst for your comment. It emphasizes again very nicely what knowledge is and I completely agree that it is often overlooked particularly in bigger companies.

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