There have been a few threads on LinkedIn KM groups on the topic of “knowledge assets” recently.

It’s one of those words which gets thrown around by KM people without any agreed definition.  For many people, they are interchangeable with the term “information assets”, but sound sexier.  (Much like databases became “knowledgebases” a few years ago.)

Now I’m not going to assert definitions here – rather to give my view on the different perspectives, and share the way I distinguish between knowledge assets and information assets, building on the descriptions that Geoff and I wrote in “Learning to Fly”.

Speaking of flight, there’s something about butterfly collections which always leaves me feeling slightly saddened.   The colours and fragility are still there, but of course the life has gone.

Image courtesy of hoyasmeg on Flickr

I think we do well to remind ourselves that when we capture knowledge and write it down as information, we kill it.
That’s not to say that the information is not immensely valuable, and may even have a long shelf life.

But it is dead.

Knowledge is information with the life still in it!

For me, the role of a knowledge asset is to consolidate the learning from a number of activities, and produce a distilled set of guidelines or recommendations, with (importantly) a clear and well-linked signpost to contact the source, to drill down into more detail and examples, and to contribute further stories to build the asset further.  Oh, and there’s some kind of mechanism for validating the input – ideally via a community of practice.  They keep it alive.

I’ve seen a lot of examples which start out as “knowledge assets”, but quickly become “knowledge graveyards” because there is no community to own and refresh the content, and the links between the information and the authors/sources are not clear or maintained. Once you lose the connection between knowledge and the person who provided it, it’s a bit like switching off its life support machine…

  • There is an “extractionist” school of thought out there which focuses on separating knowledge from an individual, then combining, distilling and packaging in into a convenient and accessible products.
  • And there’s a “connectivist” school of thought which seeks to turn information into an advertisement for a conversation with the source.

I think the best knowledge assets combine these perspectives.   Too much extractionism (is that a real word?), and you can end up a logical but inflexible, self-reinforcing summary of the views of the editor-in-chief.  Too much connectivism, and you can get endless repeating, diverging threads and snippets which can be frustrating to draw insight from, and require too many phone calls to answer the all questions they elicit.

There are some topics which lend themselves to something approaching a “single version of the truth” (we call that known area “best practice” don’t we?), and for them, the logic of an extractionist-oriented knowledge asset will work.

Then there are topics which are more complicated, and benefit from the constant iteration and interaction of a connection-rich asset. (That’s knowable “good practice” in the Cynefin framework).

Simplified Cynefin framework, from

I suspect it’s in these two quadrants where knowledge assets add value. Shifting further to the left takes us on a journey into emergence and chaos where pre-packaged knowledge is unlikely to fit the bill, although the fragments and stories they contain may well be informative.

One of the LinkedIn discussions asked: “Is a cookbook was an example of a knowledge asset?”

My answer was:

… a cookbook isn’t really a very good example of a knowledge asset because it represents a snapshot in time of a particular recipe, and doesn’t usually provide me with an easy way to ask questions of the chef, or other cooks who are learning/experimenting/adapting… I would say it’s really an Information Asset.  That’s not a bad thing – I have a kitchen full of them!

However, a recipe *blog*, which has all the benefit of the book, but which is socially constructed, grows and develops, commented-on added to by other cooks and enthusiasts who ask and answer questions…  Now that feels more like a *knowledge* asset to me.