Talking about KM

What is Knowledge?

The words “knowledge” and “information” are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. In this Guide, the term “knowledge” is used to refer to what exists inside the human brain – as opposed to “information,” which can be represented on paper, independent of any person. Knowledge is built over time through education, work experience, and interactions. It enables people to make good decisions and act in an effective manner.

In any organization, there are veteran employees that are the source of institutional knowledge – accumulated through years of experience. Sometimes this institutional knowledge is not helpful and inhibits positive change – as in “we’ve always done it this way.” However, much of this knowledge is very valuable. If properly tapped, it can help the organization to avoid repeating past mistakes and improve on past performance. Once employees leave, this knowledge may be lost forever.

How Do You Manage Knowledge?

“Knowledge Management” is an umbrella term for a variety of techniques for building, leveraging and sustaining the know-how and experience of an organization’s employees and partners to carry out its mission in an intelligent manner.

Building knowledge requires providing opportunities for employees to learn from their peers – both within and outside of the organization.

Leveraging knowledge requires making sure that individuals and project teams are learning from prior experience and are not re-inventing the wheel.

Sustaining knowledge requires retaining critical capabilities and institutional memory as employees retire or transition to other jobs-either within or outside of the organization.

Fundamental activities of KM are knowledge capture and knowledge transfer. Both of these are needed in order to build, leverage and sustain an organization’s institutional knowledge.

  • Knowledge Capture. A technical expert can be interviewed and asked to summarize important lessons and techniques they have learned. These lessons and techniques can be recorded and made available to others. This is called “knowledge capture” – and, in effect, results in transforming human knowledge into codified information.
  • Knowledge Transfer. A seasoned project manager can be asked to mentor or collaborate with others as they tackle a task or project. This allows for “knowledge transfer” – person-to-person.

Different Types of Knowledge

There are different types of knowledge and each type may require different approaches to capture and transfer:

  • Descriptive knowledge concerns the “what” – e.g., what projects similar to this have been done over the past five years?
  • Causal knowledge concerns the “why” – e.g., why was this pavement mix type selected?
  • Procedural knowledge is concerned with the “how” – e.g., what are the options for procuring services of a particular type?
  • Social knowledge is concerned with “who” – e.g., who is the best person to talk to about how to handle a particular customer concern?

Knowledge and Information Management

Knowledge management and information management are interrelated and have overlapping activities:

  • Information management is the means by which an organization collects, stores and provides access to information.
  • Knowledge management can rely on information management practices to ensure access to digital and paper content, but it emphasizes activities related to employee networking, collaboration, learning and knowledge application that fall outside of the realm of information management.

To understand how information and knowledge management are interrelated, it is helpful to look at the information and knowledge life cycle illustrated in Figure 1. This cycle highlights the touch points between knowledge and information management. Key activities in the information life cycle are:

  • Information is created or acquired – for example, a new procedure document is drafted.
  • Information is documented and classified – the new procedure is assigned key words, and a brief description of it is added.
  • Information is stored or archived for active use or long-term preservation – the procedure is posted on the agency website.
  • Information is periodically culled to identify what should be saved and what is no longer needed, subject to applicable records retention schedules – older versions of procedures are discarded to avoid confusion.
  • Information is discovered and accessed through search engines, web pages or library catalogs.

Key activities in the knowledge life cycle are:

  • Employees build knowledge through a learning process – informed by content that they discover and access and/or through collaboration or mentoring relationships with their peers.
  • Employees use and apply their knowledge in the course of carrying out their jobs.
  • Periodically, employee knowledge is captured and codified for use by others. This capture process may yield information in multiple forms – e.g., procedural documents, training materials, lessons learned descriptions, blog posts or taped interviews. This captured knowledge becomes an input to the information cycle.


Data and documents that have been given value through analysis, interpretation or compilation in a meaningful form. Example: A map showing high crash locations.


The basis for a person’s ability to take effective action or make an effective decision. Example: a safety professional’s understanding of what countermeasures would be appropriate in different situations.

Preserving Knowledge

"Most of the engineers who were part of the design teams planning, designing and building the highways in Maine from the 1950s through the 1970s have retired. Moreover, that was the ‘golden years’ for highway construction in Maine when most of its limited-access highways were built. The knowledge of how the planning, design and construction of those highways occurred is starting to wane.

“The objective of this project was to have influential engineers from the ‘golden years’ of road construction give seminars where they presented highlights from their careers and to document how large projects in the state of Maine were done and what can be learned from this for future large projects.”

Source: "Institutional Memories of Road Design." See reference 11

Figure 1. The Information and Knowledge Life Cycle

Information management and knowledge management are synergistic – coordinating activities in these areas is a successful strategy.

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