Is knowledge management really information management?: a question of crucial definition

Picture of italian philosopher Luciano Floridi

Image via Wikipedia

No, I am not going to repeat the argument so well put forward many years ago by Tom Wilson (The nonsense of knowledge management, 2002,, with which I largely agree.  While Professor Wilson argues his case well, he largely comes to the conclusion that the term ‘knowledge management’ was formulated in order to cover a number of organisational managerial and communication issues, without much of a nod to – or even recognition of – the existing field of Library and Information Science, or Information Studies, or Information Studies, or whatever you want to call it.  This poverty of nomenclature – the continuing disregard that we information professionals seem to have to clarity of expression – is at the heart, I believe, of many of the perennial issues and problems that fracture our field to no real purpose.

Wilson has, from time to time, referred back to ‘knowledge management’, reinforcing his point that, as a practice or field of study, it doesn’t really exist as a separate entity, as it is identical in process and conception to information management.  What would help his argument enormously, I believe, is if he were able to use definitions for these terms (‘information’ and ‘knowledge’) that had achieved consensus in the field.  Then, we would not have to explain to all of those involved in this field, many of whom are drawn from management, information systems, business studies, technology and so forth – exactly what it is that needs to be done in order to manage ‘knowledge’.  We could perhaps even encourage these folk to take a look at the masses of research already completed in our field concerning precisely the issues with which knowledge managers now engage: assisting in the communication of ideas from one human to another.  As I have written elsewhere (e.g. 2005 and 2007), I understand information professionals to be ‘information interventionists’: we intervene in the knowledge creation cycle.

The central issue, though, is that we importantly have not yet come to a widely accepted definition of ‘information’ or ‘knowledge’.  By this I mean, rather more precisely, that we do not have an operational definition that works for our field and for the work we do.  James Gleick, author of Chaos, inter alia, has now published a book on information: ‘Information: a history, a theory, a flood‘ (Fourth Estate, 2011) and one must admire him for his courage and ability to do so.  Having said that, he does not move us forward to understand better what ‘information’ is.  Neither does philosopher Luciano Floridi, who has written extensively on this topic and on the philosophy of information.  However much the data-information-knowledge model (often represented in pyramid form) is criticised or maligned, this still remains the starting point, or mental model, for both authors.  In Gleick’s case, the concept is further confused with information objects or entities, technology, networks and the new physics.  I find the understanding of information in the new physics fascinating: Information: the new language of science is probably my favourite book on this subject.  But this does not conceptualise the notion of  ‘information’ in a way that is meaningful for those of us who wish to assist people to create their own knowledge by finding out what others have thought, created, felt, experienced and so on.

This is why I wrote a PhD thesis on the topic of defining information. What I found in my research, amongst many other interesting things, is the political nature of the definition and interpretation of information, and I believe it would be appropriate for us to pay more attention to such dimensions of the core of our discipline/profession.

[I can let you have a digital copy of this work: email me or make a note here].


About Susan
Converging ICTs, multidisciplinarity, making knowledge and making meaning.

10 Responses to Is knowledge management really information management?: a question of crucial definition

  1. Katherine says:

    Been meaning to ask you for a while now for a copy of your thesis! Would appreciate a copy sent to k1.howard [at] Many thanks! K 🙂

  2. Tamsin O'Brien says:

    Hi Sue, your writing has given me an idea how to link my digital presrvation thesis into a theoretical freamework. At last! I would be interested in reading your thesis. Regards Tamsin

  3. Steve Roby says:

    Hi. Just read about your thesis in Conrad Taylor’s article in Information Outlook, and I’d very much like to have a look at it.

  4. kosson says:

    I would be glad to read your thesis. Please, do send me a copy as I find it relevant to my studies. Thank you!

    An entry here:

  5. Muhammad Rafiq says:

    Hello Sue,

    Thanks for offering PhD Thesis. I will be happy to read.

    I appreciate your post on the knowledge vs information management debate. Of course, this area needs to be address seriously. I’m going to share your post on my blog LISSTUDYCIRCLE.BLOGSPOT.COM



  6. Carol Feuerriegel says:

    Hi Sue,
    I agree with James – this is fascinating stuff. Thanks for your blog post.
    I too would like to take you up on your offer to share your thesis.

    I was looking forward to the Easter break to catch up on my reading (real reading, books not screendumps). I had Gleick’s new book top of my list but I have found it a struggle to stay engaged. I got as far as Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine and felt the discussion was going down a technology track that too closely ressembled ‘work’ for true holiday reading!

    In the end he lost out to ‘Virtually You – the dangers of the e-personality’ by psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude (a general discussion of emerging psychiatric disorders associated with internet use/abuse ) and ‘The Dancing Wu Li Masters – an overview of the new physics’ an oldy but a goody by Gary Zukov. I chose the latter as preparation for tackling something (yet to be found) on Hawking’s ‘Information Paradox’.

    In my work I have often used the slogan ‘Information can change everything – good information management is just good business’ in an often fruitless attempt to raise people’s awareness of information as something that exists independent of the wires and flashing lights of the technology that delivers it. It will be ironic if it turns out that information IS everything a la the Hawking proposition!

    PS: Thanks to your post I have just ‘Amazoned’ ‘Information: the new language of science’ (if Google can be a verb then why not?…) – So much to read, so little time!

  7. Hi Sue! So much to catch up on … so little time at the moment – nonetheless, I lurk 😉 Glad to take you up on the offer to share your thesis – it is a topic I also find fascinating.

    Corporately, collection policy (say, in an archives) is an overt expression of the politics in IM. More generally, design of taxonomies (or the debate over whether taxonomies are “still” necessary) provides opportunity for political views to be slipped under action. Yet in my experience, the progress toward consciousness is critical. For the most part, people are unaware of the political underpinnings of action…which leaves the whole vulnerable to the influence of the (relatively) few who are both aware and motivated to use that knowledge strategically. Interesting stuff!

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