Earlier this month (26th May 2022) a fanged crowd of 1,369 “vampires” gathered in Whitby to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the publication of Bram Stoker’s classic novel in 1897, and set a new world record for the largest crowd of “vampires” gathered in one place , beating the previous record of 1,039 “vampires” who gathered at Doswell in Virginia, USA in 2011. To meet requirements, the “vampires” had to meet a specific dress code and stand together in the same place for 5 minutes.
Jack Brookbank, official adjudicator for Guinness World Records, said: “We are quite strict about the official costume that is allowed. It must include black shoes, black trousers or dress, waistcoat, shirt, black cape or collared overcoat and fangs on the top set of teeth.”
Previous attempts at records had failed because the wannabe vampires wore trainers or other non-appropriate clothes.
What does this fang-tastic, high-stakes record attempt have to do with Knowledge Management?
Reading about the record attempt and the “definition of a vampire” made me think about difficult definitions and their importance.
If you’ve been working in the Knowledge Management sector for a while, especially if you were involved even tangentially in the creation of the International Standard for Knowledge Management (ISO 30401-2018E), you will understand how incredibly difficult it has been to agree upon a single definition of “knowledge”.
Eventually it was agreed that knowledge is a “human or organizational asset enabling effective decisions and action in context” and “Knowledge occurs in many types and forms that constitute a continuum from clearly codified to uncodified, experience and/or action-based knowledge […] Understanding knowledge as a continuum within this range gives a deeper appreciation of the essence of knowledge management and it matters less what terms are used to define it.”
A definition of knowledge is incredibly difficult to pin down, so why is it important to discuss it and reach a working definition?
If we want to avoid wasting our time and maximise the utility of the knowledge we are managing for the benefit of our organisations, we need to understand whether we are dealing with information or knowledge and, if it is knowledge, what kind of knowledge we are managing.
Over many years practitioners have discovered that we need to use different tools and tactics to manage information versus knowledge, and different tactics for types of knowledge at different positions on that spectrum/continuum.
Of course, we could argue forever and never draw a line or reach a “good enough” definition, just as those adjudicating the vampire-athon could have endlessly disagreed about whether black leather shoes would be sufficient or whether vampires should have replica or actual Victorian shoes.
Just as there is a whole range of footwear between Nike trainers and replica Victorian shoes, there is a spectrum of varieties of knowledge between the most objective, easiest to write down and share and the most subjective, deeply held, embodied experiential knowledge, but for practical purposes we need to divide knowledge along approximate lines to enable us to manage it, from the stuff that is easier to write down and absorb from written sources, to the stuff that you could write down, but really is more effectively embedded in a process, to the stuff that is highly personal and is more effectively shared through conversation and working alongside each other (and of course the stuff that is too deeply embedded to share).
Just as Guinness World Records had to choose a definition of a “vampire” for the record attempt, we in the knowledge management sector must find a practical, working definition for knowledge and gain an understanding about where along that continuum codifiable and non-codifiable knowledge lies, while accepting the shades of grey in between, for the sake of getting stuff done.
What do you think? Do you find definitions useful for different reasons? Is your working definition of knowledge or knowledge management different to that in the International Standard? I’d love to hear from you. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was first published in Information Professional Magazine in 2022, where I have a regular column all about KM issues.