Forms of Knowledge, Ways of Knowing

The principle premise of Cook & Brown’s “Bridging Epistemologies” is that there are two separate yet complimentary epistemologies tied up in the concept of knowledge.  The first one of these is found in the traditional definition of knowledge, which describes knowledge as something people possess—that is, a property (in more than one sense of the word) that is.  Cook & Brown refer to this as the “epistemology of possession”, and it can be characterized as the “body” of knowledge.  The second, “epistemology of practice” hones in on the act of knowing found in individual and group activities—it is the capacity of doing.  Cook & Brown contend that the interplay between these two distinct forms is how we generate new knowledge, in a manner not unlike Nonaka’s spiral structure of knowledge creation (with one key difference, described below), which they call the “generative dance”.

Another way I conceptualized this distinction (using analogy, as Nonaka urges, to resolve contradiction and generate explicit knowledge from tacit knowledge, (21)) was to consider these two notions of “knowledge”/”knowing” from a linguistic perspective: if knowledge and knowing were distinct properties of the English sentence, knowing would be the verb and knowledge the object.  This is supported by Cook & Brown’s emphasis on how “knowledge” can be applied in practice as a tool to complete the task, and can result from the act of knowing (388); “knowing” acts upon (and through) “knowledge”, just as the verb acts upon (or through) the object.  The subject—that is, the person or people who are performing the action—is an essential element both to the formulation of knowledge/knowing and to the sentence.  The subject’s relationship to the verb and the object is very similar to the individual (or group’s) relationship to knowing and knowledge.  The verb represents enaction by the subject—as knowing does—and the object represents that which is employed, derived or otherwise affected by this enaction—as knowledge is.  Cook & Brown’s principle of “productive inquiry” and the interaction between knowledge and knowing, then, can be represented by the structure of the sentence.

Cook & Brown’s premise has many important implications for knowledge management.  Perhaps the most important of these is the idea that knowledge is abstract, static and required for action (that is, “knowing”) in whatever form it takes, while knowing is dynamic, concrete and related to forms of knowledge.  Of these characteristics, the most dramatic must be the static nature of knowledge; in what is Cook & Brown’s most significant break with Nonaka, they state that knowledge does not change or transform.  The only way for new knowledge to be created from old knowledge is for it to be applied in practice (i.e. “productive inquiry”).  Nonaka perceives knowledge as something malleable, that can transform from tacit to explicit and back again, while Cook & Brown unequivocally state that knowledge of one form remains in that form (382, 387, 393, 394-95).  For Cook & Brown, each form of knowledge (explicit, tacit, individual and group) performs a unique function (382).  The appropriate application of one form of knowledge in the practice (the act of knowing) can, however, give rise to knowledge in another (393).

I found Blair’s article “Knowledge Management: Hype, Hope or Help?” useful as a supplement to Cook & Brown.  Blair makes several insightful points about knowledge and knowledge management, such as the application of Wittgenstein’s theory of meaning as use in defining “knowledge”, identifying abilities, skills, experience and expertise as the human aspect of knowledge, and raising the problem of intellectual property in KM practice.  Blair’s most valuable contribution, however, is to emphasize the distinction between the two types of tacit knowledge.  This is a point Cook & Brown (and Nonaka) fail to make in their theory-sweeping models.  It is also a point I have struggled with in my readings of Cook & Brown and Nonaka.  Tacit knowledge can be either potentially expressible or not expressible (Blair, 1025).  An example of tacit knowledge that is “potentially expressible” would be heuristics—the “trial-and-error” lessons learned by experts.  Certainly in my own experience, this has been a form of tacit knowledge that can be gleaned in speaking with experts and formally expressed to educate novices (generating “explicit knowledge” through the use of “tacit knowledge”).  An example of inexpressible tacit knowledge would be the “feel” of the flute at different levels of its construction described in Cook & Brown’s example of the flutemakers’ study (395-96); this is knowledge that can only be acquired with experience, and no amount of discussion with experts, of metaphor and analogy, will yield a sufficient understanding of what it entails.  It is an essential distinction to make, since as knowledge workers we must be able to determine how knowledge is and should be expressed.


Cited References

Blair, D. (2002). Knowledge management: Hype, hope, or help? Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 53(12), 1019-1028.

Cook, S. D. N., and Brown, J. S. (1999). Bridging Epistemologies: The Generative Dance between Organizational Knowledge and Organizational Knowing, Organization Science 10(4), 381-400.

Nonaka, I. (1994). A Dynamic Theory of Organizational Knowledge Creation. Organization Science 5(1), 5-37.

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