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.

12 things every knowledge worker should know how to do

As a knowledge worker you are a site of production. You are ‘plant and machinery’. You are a knowledge ‘engine’. Your capability and capacity for knowledge work is a function of the condition of YOU and the conditions you create for yourself. What should you know how to do to be the best functioning knowledge engine?

Here’s a list of twelve things.

Manage self

1. Know your own learning style/preferences (try Felder and Silverman’s Index of Learning Styles); your personal knowledge management style (try Six Cs of Personal Knowledge Management by Straits Knowledge).
2. Know your strengths and what to do to play to these (try Clifton Strengths Finder).
3. Use personal resources like Time, Attention, Energy and Relationships effectively (try Activity Time Budget, Honest Digital Calendar, Attention Filter).

Manage information

4. Title documents meaningfully – follow a naming convention that makes good sense. Use Properties and meta-data whenever you can to enrich the information, and enable quick easy discovery.
5. Setup, maintain and use an information organisation system; both for a collection of items, and with the structure within a single item. (i.e. Headings/Sections, Table of Contents, Cross Referencing, etc.).
6. Curate information; manage a collection of useful resources for self and/or others.

Develop knowledge

7. Use reflective practice including after-action reviews, to Think about what you’ve done and what could be done and what you are going to do.
8. Set an intention and test hypothesis; experiment to gain insights. Sometimes you need to Act to discover useful Thoughts.
9. Summarise and distil a set of knowledge (try Notebooking or Mindmapping).
10. Recognise knowledge creation and distribution opportunities and leverage them.

Produce knowledge

11. Create produced knowledge to address different learning styles, with communication medium appropriate for the audience.
12. Package knowledge creatively for production/publication (e.g. document, presentation, slides, session outline).

Learn more about Develop knowledge and Produce knowledge phases in knowledge creation.

If you can do all these, you have the foundations for being knowledge-savvy.


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 isn’t wasted. She revels in making small changes that disrupt the way people think and what they do.


The work of Knowledge Mgmt vs Information Mgmt

Another way (see previous post Knowledge Management vs Information Management – Same Difference?) to understand the difference between Knowledge Management and Information Management is to consider the typical Objectives and Activities of each. KM and IM are both organisational functions. Both can be constructed as programmes of initiatives – though with different expected outcomes. From an enterprise view, here is how I think they differ.

Knowledge Management

Typical Objectives

  • Adaptability and agility to quickly achieve competitive advantage
  • Retention, growth and circulation of institutional memory
  • Creativity generating innovation
  • Organisational effectiveness in collaboration and coordination
  • Liveability and credibility of organisation for insiders

Typical Activities

  • Establish, facilitate and promote Communities of Practice
  • Conduct Knowledge Audits to identify knowledge that is needed to do work, and is difficult to replace or replicate
  • Establish and facilitate Lessons Learned approaches to capture after-the-fact knowledge from particular process, project or event
  • Establish and facilitate Storytelling approaches to transfer context-rich knowledge
  • Facilitate Mentoring and Apprenticeship programs to leverage subject matter experts tacit knowledge
  • Enhance and facilitate integrated knowledge transfer practices within employment life cycle, e.g. Induction program, professional development, exit interviews
  • Facilitate and promote enterprise knowledge transfer events, e.g. Knowledge Fairs (“look what we know or did”)
  • Facilitate and promote enterprise knowledge sharing and retention tools, e.g. Human Yellow Pages, Lessons Learned logs, Handoff/handover documents
  • Define and teach best practice for knowledge transfer and retention
  • Facilitate extraction of subject-matter-expertise knowledge and integrating this into targeted learning programs and tools

NB: I haven’t explicitly mentioned technology … On purpose! I think too many KM programs get focused on intranets, social computing and virtual collaboration tools at the expense of the people connecting, sharing and conversing activity.

Information Management

Typical Objectives

  • Compliance with regulations and standards (internal and external)
  • Organisational effectiveness in collaboration and coordination
  • Preservation of critical institutional information
  • Minimised organisational risk with non-repudiable evidence of activity
  • Better quality responsive decision-making

Typical Activities

  • Define and manage enterprise Information Architecture and meta-data to organise information and data
  • Define sources and destinations of information
  • Develop and implement new and upgraded IM systems (systems = people, process and tools)
  • Develop and manage integration of multiple IM systems
  • Manage interfaces for users to search and create data, content and information
  • Develop and implement data and content administration Manage retention, revision and retirement of enterprise information
  • Define and manage security and accessibility of information
  • Extract, aggregate and analyse data and information to provide business intelligence
  • Define and teach best practice for information capture, organisation and disposal

And both functions have activities in common like other organisational functions e.g. financial management, human resources. For example:

  • Understand the KM or IM needs for executing corporate business strategy
  • Define enterprise KM or IM strategy, policies and standards
  • Assess the KM or IM implications of new technologies
  • Define stewardship and responsibilities for KM or IM
  • Maintain KM or IM services and solutions including managing risk, compliance, funding, etc

Do they seem the same to you?

One reason for confusion about the difference may be that IM and KM both involve people, both exist for people, and should be designed for and with people. However KM addresses the tacit knowledge that is inside people that isn’t, and sometimes can’t or shouldn’t be, documented. KM’s focus is on retention and transfer of knowledge between and within people, rather than between people and information systems or within information systems.

Helen Palmer is Principal Consultant at RHX Group. She thinks critically about knowledge work, and ways to ensure knowledge isn’t wasted. She revels in tackling the big processes of change and learning so that ideas become impact. With her colleagues at RHX Group, Helen helps teams make better use of their people, knowledge and information.