What is knowledge and why is it critical to the B.C. public sector?

This section is a good starting point for users who are not familiar with the concept of knowledge and its management. It will:

What do we mean by knowledge?

Knowledge is distinct from data and information. People absorb both data and information to develop knowledge. They also transform data into information using knowledge.

Here’s an example of the data-information-knowledge connection:
A policy analyst is asked to determine whether a policy change regarding the marketing of B.C. wines has had a positive effect on the industry. She starts by reviewing a table of numbers on the sale of B.C. wine in the province over the last three years. The table contains data.

The analyst reads these numbers, and creates a trend line that shows that B.C. wine sales have steadily increased over the three year period but most notably after the policy was implemented. The data has been transformed to information.

To come up with possible explanations for the increase in sales, the analyst considers additional information, speaks with known wine producers and distributers, and consults with an expert she met at a conference. After examining all this information and using her own knowledge and judgment, she concludes that the efforts to market local wine expanded significantly because of the policy change and this in turn has positively influenced sales.

In this scenario, the policy analyst used both existing knowledge and generated new knowledge. She applied her “know-how” to reach an understanding of a particular issue. By turning data into information, using her existing knowledge to tap into stakeholders and other information sources, considering the industry knowledge obtained from those sources, and reflecting on all of this, she came to her conclusion. In effect, she generated new knowledge (Davenport and Prusak 1998).

Categories of knowledge

Knowledge assets (e.g. the knowledge of a specialist or a research document) can be internal or external to the organization.

Knowledge takes different forms on a spectrum between explicit and tacit. This categorization is useful because to effectively manage the range of these diverse knowledge assets, different tools and approaches are required.

Explicit knowledge

This is concrete knowledge – that is, knowledge that can be easily codified, organized and stored. For example, an evaluation of the Federal government’s employment programs stored on an intranet site is an explicit knowledge asset. A policy or procedure manual is also an explicit knowledge asset.

Tacit knowledge and 'know-how'

Tacit knowledge is more difficult to codify, organize and store than explicit knowledge. Related to tacit knowledge is the idea of “know-how”. This refers to knowledge of the processes and tools required to accomplish something well. Know-how can mean having (Collison and Parcell 2004, pp. 34–35):

  • know-who about networks and relationships in and out of government;
  • know-what about content and specialist knowledge;
  • know-why about big-picture context, strategy and systems thinking;
  • know-where about researching and sleuthing skills; and 
  • know-when about timing of when to take action and when not to, such as deciding to set a project aside.

Why think of knowledge as a strategic asset?

A focus on knowledge as a strategic asset is important because improving the management of this asset can enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of public sector organizations and help these organizations meet the challenges of the future.

Many experts argue that an organization’s ability to perform well in the information age depends on its ability to use knowledge effectively. In the private sector, knowledge has become a critical source of comparative advantage as companies increasingly draw on factors such as employee knowledge and innovative capacity to remain competitive (Stewart 2001, p. 5; Usoff 2002, p. 9; Pertson 2009, p. 2).

For public sector organizations, improving the generation, sharing and use of knowledge leads to many real benefits, such as:

  • Enhanced strategic decision-making
  • Better-informed policy
  • More cost-effective services
  • Engagement of citizens and stakeholders in new and better ways
  • Innovation
  • Reduced redundancy for routine tasks
  • Better knowledge flow across organizational boundaries
  • Enhanced transfer and protection of corporate memory
  • Improved employee engagement
  • Better quality of information and services provided to citizens


But it is not just about benefits. Successfully managing knowledge is essential for government to achieve its goals and objectives. Senior managers we interviewed suggested that managing knowledge is, in fact, a core business of government and important for supporting public sector values. In this way, knowledge is a strategic asset.

The public service should be a trusted source of information. Government plays a vital role in informing the public on a wide range of topics. Child safety, flu prevention, nutrition, wildfire risks and floodingare just some of the areas where information and knowledge must be shared to protect the public.

Given the provincial government’s shifting role toward decision-making and policy and away from direct delivery of services, generating, sharing and safeguarding knowledge is fundamental. Oversight, coordination and decision-making require knowledge of – among other things – how services are delivered, what impacts or trends place these services at risk and how well citizens are being served.

For example, consider the area of highway engineering and maintenance. It is the know-how of highway engineers, maintenance managers and others that is essential to ensuring roads and bridges are well designed, can meet future demands and are adequately maintained to support public safety. Simply hiring more people to do the work, or bringing in extra equipment will not automatically lead to safer highways. Ensuring that highly qualified and knowledgeable employees are in place to develop policy and oversee contracts is important. But ensuring that there are effective ways to generate new knowledge, share existing knowledge and apply that knowledge to meet business objectives and improve practices is critical.

The challenges of managing knowledge

While the importance of knowledge assets increases, knowledge remains difficult to manage effectively. In KPMG’s European Knowledge Management Survey, for example, 78% of respondents reported feeling that they were “currently missing out on business opportunities by failing to successfully exploit available knowledge” (KPMG 2002/2003, p. 4).

It is likely that management of this resource will become even more challenging in the future. The world is becoming more connected and complex. Change is rapid, and organizations are seeing losses of experienced staff at a time of higher demands on agency services. Along with all of that, the rapid expansion of information and communication technologies means that managers and staff are having to cope with ever greater amounts of data and information.

Making sense of these complexities, adapting to change, effectively capturing and sharing relevant knowledge, and developing knowledge-savvy employees all require deliberate effort (Bontis 2000; DeLong 2004; Handzic et al. 2008).

What is the strategic management of knowledge?

Traditional management practices are often focused on tangible assets such as inventory and equipment. Managing an intangible asset such as knowledge requires a different approach: a specific set of practices and tools aimed at harnessing and maximizing the use and mobilization of knowledge.

Knowledge management has been described as strategic work to enable organizational learning (McElroy) or to create common context (Snowden). Under that umbrella, there can be many knowledge-related activities. Organizational learning, intellectual capital and human capital management are terms often associated with the management of knowledge.

While information and data management as well as library sciences are also considered complementary to the work of managing knowledge, they shouldn’t be considered knowledge management. The strategic management of knowledge is broader and includes human and social connections and contexts.

Our definition of the strategic management of knowledge

For the purpose of this guide, we have defined the strategic management of knowledge as a systematic approach to maximizing the generation, sharing, and use of knowledge to support organizational learning, resilience and, ultimately, performance.

Such work includes strategies, tools and processes that can be employed to ensure that people are connected, that learning occurs at a team and organizational level, and that appropriate supports – including access to expertise and technology – are in place to enhance decision-making, achieve operational efficiency and effectiveness, and promote innovation.