An explanation for the Knowledge-Information-Record ecology

I have a hypothesis … a working theory (WARNING: Live knowledge work!) that an analogy from nature could help explain the Knowledge-Information-Record ecology, from a Same-and-Different perspective.

This is a view that is not about a hierarchy, where you attempt to resolve questions like: Is Information a subset of Knowledge? Or is Knowledge a subset of Information? This is a different and maybe fresh perspective.

If you are reading this and need to answer the question now about ‘Why would I care about these differences?‘ then jump down to the section entitled “How the distinction might be useful“. If you are still figuring out the ‘What’ it is that you might care about, then keep reading.

Starting with physics

In nature, H20 is a substance that can exist in different forms or phases: Gas, Liquid and Solid. Or as we more commonly say: Steam, Water, and Ice.  There are processes that transition such substances between these phases, e.g. freezing and condensation.

Here is a perspective that recognises Related yet Separate entities: Related = Water; Separate = Solid, Liquid, Gas.

How might this be applied to Knowledge-Information-Record?  How about:
Solid = Records/Archives – as something ‘tangible’ that can be touched/seen; is preserved
Liquid = Information – as something still ‘tangible’ that can be seen; is an input or output of process
(A tangential thought: Droplets = Data – the small bits that come together to make Information)
Gas  = Knowledge – as something less tangible; not seen directly; inferred by its effect on things; very fuzzy boundaries; more problematic to contain and capture

Does that resonate with you?

Changing Form

Science gives us six phase transitions that happen to the Forms of Solid, Liquid and Gas.

              sublimation                             deposition
SOLID  ============>  GAS    ==============> SOLID

              melting                                    freezing
SOLID  ============>  LIQUID  =============>  SOLID

            condensation                          vapourisation
GAS  =============>   LIQUID  =============> GAS

Cognitive equivalents for these phase transitions might be:
Sublimation = reading, thinking and memorising about the content of a record
Deposition = reflecting and working out loud to elicit inner thoughts and record them directly as something concrete and immutable
Melting =  reading and talking about the content of a record
Freezing = talking and writing with others to make the content of a record
Condensation = speaking, showing, writing about your knowledge to make it transportable outside of you
Vapourisation = listening, learning, doing, observing as you take in the knowledge of others and what is around you to ‘store’ it inside you
NB: I didn’t specify ‘inside you’ as your head or mind. Some of your knowledge may be residing in other parts of your body! And that’s a whole other conversation for another day.

There’s an interesting relationship to explore here in comparing these phase transitions with Nonaka & Takeuchi’s SECI model (1995).  For the uninitiated, SECI stands for Socialisation – sharing tacit knowledge tacitly through shared experience or in face-to-face communication utilising practical examples; Externalisation – converting tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge that is in forms that others can read/listen/watch and interpret for themselves; Combination – combining explicit knowledge with other explicit knowledge to create new forms and concepts that can be analysed and organised anew; and Internalisation – understanding and taking in explicit knowledge so that it becomes an individual’s own internal and tacit knowledge.

I leave it to you to explore and make up your own mind about such a relationship.

Defining Form

Another useful construct about each of the phases has to do with shape and volume:  A Solid has a definite shape and volume. A Liquid has a definite volume but it takes the shape of a container in which is resides. A Gas expands freely filling whatever space is available regardless of the quantity.

A Record is fixed; it has a definite form and volume because it captures the cognitive substance to be immutable, a static preservation at a moment in time.  Information is more fluid it has a definite volume but can change shape based on context and utility. Knowledge is amorphous it definitely exists but is hard to see or touch as something discrete or distinct from its surroundings.

How the distinction might be useful

Making such a distinction between Knowledge, Information and Records, and thus Knowledge Management, Information Management and Records Management, might provide useful clarification about differing expertise, differing and related problem spaces and thus fit-for-purpose solutions.

When you think of the different forms of water, it’s relatively easy to think of different roles for attending to each form, e.g. a Gas Engineer compared to a Water Engineer. Also easy to consider the use of different methods, technology and containers for storing gas (or steam) compared to water/liquid and ice (or frozen stuff).

I don’t have the answers for how you might think about the role of a Knowledge Manager compared to a Records Manager, or an Information Manager.  By sharing this concept, I simply intend to catalyse a fresh and potentially useful conversation.

Where will you take this knowledge?


Nonaka, I. and Takeuchi, H. (1995). The knowledge-creating company. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Helen Palmer is Founder of RHX Group, a boutique agency that partners with people who want to make change in how they work with information and knowledge.  She thinks critically about knowledge work, and how to ensure knowledge isnt wasted. She revels in making small changes that disrupt the way people think and what they do.


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