Thursday, April 13, 2006

Action Knowledge

There is much talk of the knowledge society. But for that, we need a new understanding of what knowledge is: Action knowledge. For a start, I think we need to distinguish between knowledge and information.

In an airport, the four monitors displaying departures and gates offer information. Only the one line about my flight turns into knowledge as I read it: “The gate just closed, I gotta run!”

Information is cool facts about the world. Knowledge is the hot stuff I can use to act. Information may or may not be relevant to anyone. Knowledge is only what is relevant to someone, that is, useful, meaningful, valuable and personally important. Information is parceled into bits, facts and statistics, but knowledge is always contextual.


Many systems and routines in the modern workplace peddle information: knowledge management systems, databases, intranet portals, websites, newsletters, survey statistics, reports, PowerPoint presentations, briefings and orientation meetings.

When they fail it is often because the information offered falls on deaf ears. It is important to no one and becomes knowledge nowhere.

What is knowledge, then? The common-sense view is that of naïve realism, refined by philosophers into the theory of correspondence: We possess knowledge when an idea in our minds corresponds to what is out there in the world.

In other words, knowledge is structures in the mind that mirror structures in external, objective reality. A “structure in the mind,” such as the sentence “Danish mailboxes are red”, constitutes knowledge because it mirrors or represents a structural feature of the world, Denmark's red mailboxes.

This view of knowledge as representational is dying now, amongst philosophers (Rorty 1979) as well as with the educated public. Freed of the mid-20th century obsession with rationality, current thinking has begun to include social context, history, subjectivity, embodiment, actions, intentions, emotions and values.

Despite being philosophically passé, the representational view remains powerful in both education and communications. It underlies classroom teaching, in that knowledge is supposedly transferred from the teacher’s mind to the student’s mind. And it is evident in communication theory, according to which information is being transmitted from a sender to a receiver through a channel. An act of communication is considered succesful when the message received equals the message sent.

We need to rethink this notion. How?

For an alternative view of knowledge, let us modify the naïve position that knowledge is structures in the mind that mirror structures in external reality.

We’ll expand the locus of knowledge, formerly the mind, into “consciousness”. Let us be liberal and include the subconscious in consciousness. We wish to emphasize that consciousness is not confined to the individual person, but is molded and constructed socially and culturally. So, knowledge is in our individual or shared consciousness.

Let’s say that knowledge consists in structures, forms, distinctions, categories, concepts, images, etc. Collectively, we may call them “structures”.

So far, so good. The major break we wish to make from the old definition is this: The purpose of these structures in people’s consciousness is no longer to represent external reality, but to guide human activity in appropriate ways.

This pragmatic turn (Dewey 1929) takes us away from passive representation and focuses on human action and the results it produces. Knowledge is structures in individual or collective consciousness that guide human activity appropriately (Ravn 2004). Let us call knowledge so conceived action knowledge (Argyris 1993).

Thus, when a Xerox machine repairman (Brown and Duguid, 2000) is able to repair malfunctioning machines, he possesses knowledge because his actions are appropriately guided by structures in his consciousness, such as distinctions, categories and images concerning ink cartridges, jammed paper and feeders and the proper ways to manipulate them.

Knowledge is that which can be acted upon; it is actionable. Knowledge grows out of human processes, it is not a static thing (Ravn 1999).

The specification that knowledge must channel human activity in appropriate ways is meant to indicate that any old notion will not count as knowledge; it has to produce appropriate and useful results.

This, of course, raises the moral and political question: “Appropriate for what? Useful to whom?” (MacIntyre 1997). That is not an easy question to answer.

It involves the questions of power, politics and morality that are normally hidden behind the seeming objectivity and rationality of knowledge in the mainstream philosophical and scientific tradition.

What we can say is that on a personal level, for information to become knowledge for me, it must be relevant to what I am trying to accomplish at work, in the world, in life as a whole.

The terms “relevant”, “meaningful”, “useful” all relate knowledge to a project, large or small, that I have, whether to board a plane on time, strike up a partnership, make my organization a success, enjoy an exciting career, live a fulfilling life, or help others improve the quality of their lives and create a more just society.

Knowledge must in some degree be relevant to my mission at work or in my life; otherwise it is just useless information.

Action knowledge is structures in consciousness that guide my actions in such a way that I may better pursue my life's meanings, which includes acting so as to help others increase their action knowledge (Ackoff 1981).

Literature referred to

Ackoff, Russell L. (1981): Creating the Corporate Future. New York: Wiley.

Argyris, C. (1993): Knowledge for Action. Jossey-Bass.

Brown, John Seeley, and Paul Duguid (2000): The Social Life of Information. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press.

Dewey, John (1929): The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action. New York: Minton, Balch.

MacIntyre, Alasdair (1987) Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Notre Dame University Press.

Ravn, Ib (1999): Flux. Borgen.

Ravn, Ib (2004): Action Knowledge in Intellectual Capital Statements: A Definition, a Design and a Case. International Journal of Learning and Intellectual Capital, 1(1): 61-71.

Rorty, Richard (1979): Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton University Press.

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