What is knowledge?

Melanne (Netherlands Enterprise Agency) was felled by the autumn flu and unfortunately could not attend the two-day training last week. Dieuwke (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) called her to ask how she was doing, and get her up to speed on the theme of the training: knowledge management. Since Melanne did not attend the trainings, Dieuwke picked some of the discussion questions that came up during the trainings and posed them to Melanne.

D: Before this training, the term ‘knowledge management’ was a vague concept to me. I think many people in the lecture felt that way, because the discussion started with the question: what is knowledge? Rather than going down a philosophical rabbit hole, we approached it pragmatically. What types of data, information, skills, and experiences do organisations in the development sector store, interpret, analyse, use – in other words, manage. And with what purpose? A few interesting points were made:

  • Data are facts that can be stored; information is the meaning we glean from those facts; knowledge is the interpretation of that information; and wisdom is the lessons learned from knowledge. We used the term ‘knowledge’ for all of these things for ease of discussion.
  • Managing these types of knowledge is important for organisations, especially working in the developing field, because it allows us to get an understanding of, diagnose, and respond to the multifaceted, interconnected problems we are trying to address. It also gives us the opportunity to learn from experiences (good ones and mistakes).
  • There is a difference between explicit knowledge (the kind that can be articulated and stored, like statistics) and tacit knowledge, which is experiential and personal (like a skill or expertise).

So, question to you Melanne: what types of knowledge do you work with and for what purpose?

M: Although the explicit knowledge we have is more showed to the outside world, we often forget that also a lot of valuable tacit knowledge is captured by our team of project advisors of RVO. Because, almost every week the projects advisors of RVO are in contact with the project partners and also frequently the projects are visited in the project countries. During these field trips lots of components of the projects are experienced by the project advisors of RVO themselves. In this way, a lot of tacit knowledge is transferred and gathered.

D: We then discussed different strategies for managing knowledge. How do we capture, distribute, and effectively use the knowledge that we work with? The discussion showed that there are two main approaches:

  • Codification strategy: the technical approach to knowledge management. Provides the infrastructure to store knowledge. Person-to-documents (i.e. templates, toolkits, surveys)
  • Personalisation strategy: focuses on human processes. It uses the sense-making beaviour of individuals and is therefore tied to specific people. Knowledge is stored, shared, and used person-to-person (i.e. workshops, dialogue, meetings).

Question for Melanne: what strategy of knowledge management does RVO use most?

M: While most of the explicit knowledge in our organization is captured in templates and send to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a lot of the tacit knowledge is floating somewhere and not further distributed. According to my opinion, this tacit knowledge is also really important and therefore we need to search for ways to be better able to capture and share this tacit knowledge to in the end have the opportunity to learn from it.

D: During the last day of the training we had the opportunity to speak to different people working in development organizations on their knowledge management strategies. During those conversations, we were asked to keep the following questions in the back of our minds. Could you answer them for RVO?

  1. In your organization, who holds the knowledge? I.e. a specific department for knowledge management, or in the case of one department at the ministry, a single person with the job of making sure policy-making is always informed by academic work.
  2. Who sets the agenda? This question is important because it determines what type of knowledge is captured, stored, and used. Is it the organisation’s headquarters? Is it the Ministry? Beneficiaries of programmes?
  3. Who is learning? When knowledge is captured, stored, and analysed, who gleans the lessons learned from it?

M: In my team the knowledge agenda is mainly set by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, I am convinced of the fact that my team within RVO can much more steer this agenda and come up with their own ideas on how this agenda needs to look like. 

At different governance levels, knowledge is captured, stored, analyzed and distributed (knowledge management). RVO can be seen as the linking partner between these different levels of knowledge management. On the one hand managing that the knowledge is carefully managed on the ground and on the other hand capturing all this knowledge for transferring it to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At the same time the ‘wisdom’ received by RVO is brought back to the project partners, for learning and improving their projects.


Written by Melanne Rouw (RVO / NEA) and Dieuwke Vos (MoFA IGG)

Lecture by Verena Bitzer and Helena Posthumus (KIT)