Wednesday, October 30, 2002

It is easy to think of knowledge as embodied in people – as part of human capital. Commonly we think that when you absorb new information, it becomes part of your knowledge. Our “knowledge” is “information” which we have in our minds. This is a nice simple formula, but neurophysiologists have spent a long time trying to figure out how the brain learns. It seems to be through changes in the neurons, and especially changes that result in different responses of neurons to synaptic inputs. Thus one might consider that human “knowledge” is information that has been represented in changes in the brain, where those changes allow us to recall and/or utilize the information.

We also think of books and libraries as repositories of knowledge. I think the implication is that the authors of the books have recorded the information that they know in the books. It is clear that I don’t “know” all the information that is contained in the libraries that I use. Do I in some sense “know” everything that is in the books that surround me in my office, where I can with relative ease locate that information?

I like the idea that I think with my brain and its “surround”. Thus, while my brain does not spell very well, my computer and I can produce this document with pretty good spelling, since information on how to spell words has been stored in my computer. It is of course stored in the form of physical changes to the discs used by the computer. This is an example of a more general concept – that we can embody information in machines, and indeed in objects. I would suggest that information so embodied also may be considered to be “knowledge”. Thus if a computer controlled machine is transferred to a developing nation, then the knowledge to accomplish the tasks performed by the machine exists in the nation, even if no person in the nation “knows” independently how to build the machine or carry out its tasks without the machine. Moreover, the embodiment of information in machines is not new and is not dependent on computers. Since the Jaquard Looms were invented, it has been clear that machines can be made to do things that in ancient times required human intelligence.

I would suggest in like manner, that information can be embodied in materials and such an embodiment can be considered to be knowledge. An example of this would be pharmaceuticals, such as diagnostics and therapeutics. I participated in a decade-long research effort to understand the etiology of acute respiratory disease in children. That effort was possible only because new reagents had become available that simplified the diagnostic process. I suggest that we can consider information on the diagnosis of respiratory disease to be embodied in these reagents, and that such embodied information can be considered “knowledge”.

Increasing people talk about “organizational learning”, suggesting that an organization can absorb information, converting it into knowledge. Clearly this can happen if the people or machines in the organization store the information. I would suggest however, that an organization can know something that none of its people knows, and that is not represented in its machines. Information that is encoded in changes in organizational structure and processes would seem to fit the concept of “organizational knowledge”, even though none of the members of the organization “knows” that information. (Incidentally, organizations can learn by adding personnel who know things, or be moving personnel around so that people with applicable knowledge are placed where it is useful.)

Formal organizations are one kind of institution among many. I think that we can consider that knowledge is embodied in other institutions such as markets, communities and associations. Thus where information is embodied in the people, machines, materials, organization or processes of these institutions, it may be considered “institutional knowledge”.

Thus I see the K4D challenge to modify the information that is embodied in people, machines and materials, organizations and institutions in order to improve the lives of people. This is a big challenge.

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