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.


Managing your Attention capacity with 4Cs Attention Filter

An important personal resource for knowledge workers is Attention. It can be difficult to decide what gets attention and what doesn’t. In an information-rich world, there is more and more competing for your attention.

The merchandise of the information economy is not information; it is attention.
~ James Gleick

Quick and confident decisions about your Attention can be particularly difficult when you want to be open to what is emerging around you. Common advice to minimise overload is “Just say No”. However, a simple “Yes” or “No” doesn’t work when things aren’t black or white but rather shades of grey.

Attention is a precious resource not to be squandered on trivial things that don’t matter to you – things that are distractions, or noise that unwittingly caught your attention. By setting meaningful boundaries, you can create criteria to aid purposeful decision-making about what is worthy of your attention.

What kind of attention to give

The 4Cs Attention Filter can be helpful for organising your attention by defining the type of attention to be given. The Filter categories are Committed, Contributing, Curious and Cease. Three of the Cs are shades of grey for when you want to say “Yes – with limits” and the fourth C is the classic “No”.

COMMITTED – Things that get ongoing deep attention; things to which you have a strong and pervasive commitment; things where the buck stops with you; things where you are actively scanning for new information.
CONTRIBUTING – Things that get momentary deep attention; things to which you have some strong attachment, however, you can care about with little or no responsibility.
CURIOUS – Things that get light and occasional attention, mostly when something crosses your path, not things you are actively pursuing.
CEASE – Things not worthy of any attention at all.

Think of the Filter as organising ‘Things I am interested in’ rather than ‘Things I am doing’, that is, ‘Topics’ rather than ‘Activity’.

Here’s an example of how my Filter is currently set (as at March 2012) for vocational or professional interests.

This is a reflection of where my interests currently lie; it isn’t a reflection of the depth of my competencies. With this filter, I can quickly make decisions about which meetings and conferences I attend, which groups I belong to, which blogs and books I subscribe or read, which conversations I contribute to, and to which people/conversations I’ll give priority.

With the Filter set, things that attract my attention pass through the Filter and stick to the category to which they match and therefore get the type of Attention associated with that category.

The 4Cs Attention Filter is not intended for planning or organising an action list, though it may contribute to setting some scope for a list of activities. For a technique to organise and prioritise your activities, read Mastering your workload.

Determining your Attention Capacity

Your capacity for purposeful Attention is a factor of breadth and depth. To use a scuba diving analogy: the oxygen you have available in your tank is a factor of how deep you dive as well as how long you dive. Deeper dives require more oxygen than shallower dives, even if the duration of the dive is the same. With a finite underwater oxygen capacity, a diver makes life-dependent decisions about how many dives can be made and to what depth.

So it is with your attention capacity. You need to factor how many things you will give deep attention (i.e. Committed) in relation to the breadth of things to which you will give attention.

Set limits for each ‘Yes’ category about the number of things to which you can purposefully attend. Typically there will be less items in categories characterised by deeper attention, i.e. Committed, and Contributing. To get started, a useful rule of thumb might be 3 things in Committed, 4 in Contributing, 10 in Curious.

The Limit is designed to help you maintain a sustainable Attention load. Be sure not to add items to a category without first considering what must be subtracted from that category.

What kind of attention you have been giving

Check where your attention is, and has been going, with a quick audit. Of the things that currently have your attention, in which Attention category do they fit?

Look at your list. If you have been feeling overwhelmed, you may have too many things in the Committed category which need a depth of attention you can’t give. Or maybe you have too many things across all categories which need a breadth of attention you haven’t got.

To reduce your attention load, downgrade items to another Attention category, either permanently or for a defined period of time.

To control attention means to control experience, and therefore the quality of life.
~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Attention is a precious personal resource. So manage it in a sustainable manner, and be sure to spend it on what matters to you.

Helen Palmer is Principal Consultant at RHX Group. She thinks critically about knowledge work, and how 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.

Processing and organising information is real work

David’s Allen’s latest Productive Living newsletter [1] arrived in my email box with a pertinent reminder: (paraphrasing) processing and organisation information is real and valuable work, so make time to do it, and reduce your stress in not doing it. As David says “most people behave as if this stuff is relatively unimportant, and frankly a pain to have to deal with. I argue that it’s where much of their primary value lies. Knowledge workers are paid to bring their intelligence to bear on input, and improve things by doing that. The decision about what to do with an email and its contents, what it means in terms of the work and standards at hand, is knowledge work.”

And for the challenge of having too many flows and topics of information to manage, I remember the sage advice of John Naisbitt in his book, “Mindset – Reset your thinking and see the future“: Don’t add unless you subtract. As John says “Focus on what really meets your needs and interests … [the] goal should not be to create cemeteries of information but cradles of knowledge and inspiration.”

[1] “What do you consider your work”, Productivity Living, 2 June 2011, David Allen

Sign up for David’s newsletter at

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.

Knowledge mgmt and Information mgmt – same-difference?

Knowledge management (KM) and Information management (IM) are different and related. It’s easy to be confused and think they are the same, that KM is somehow a more faddish version of IM. Some would say it doesn’t matter – I beg to differ. To do better KM requires a different focus than to do better IM, and therefore different expertise and approaches.

Here’s my take on the difference.

For KM, the focus is knowledge; which is to say, the focus is people. Knowledge needs a knower. People create and carry knowledge. They learn, they make-sense, they make knowledge part of themselves.

For IM, the focus is information; which is stuff that lives outside a person. Much information starts out as knowledge. But when it gets detached from a person, it tends to lose context and meaning. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value, simply it has different value. (More on the knowledge vs. information difference below)

The aim of good KM in an organisation is vitalising your knowledge-base. (Remember your knowledge is in people, so your knowledge-base is what people know, as well as how they come to know it.) Managing knowledge means creating and maintaining the right conditions so knowledge can move and nourish the organisation. And this doesn’t mean putting it into information systems – it’s about harnessing social power: conversation and relationship.

The aim of good IM in an organisation is utilising information to make decisions and explain organisational activities. Managing information means developing and administering systems that collect, organise, process and aggregate information. This can mean using KM to improve people’s knowledge about to know where to get good information, and know how much value to give that information.

Information is a-kind-of knowledge, often referred to as explicit or codified knowledge. Knowledge often gets captured in more tangible forms because it makes it easier to move across time (it can outlive you) and across space (it can go without you). What started out as the knowledge of the knower becomes information, and will remain information, until someone makes sense of it and comes to know it.

Maybe this example will help you sense the difference between knowledge and information:
‘80 Rahera Street’ – As a piece of knowledge, these words represent a location where I used to live, where I shaped my environment and made many memories. My knowledge of 80 Rahera Street is emotional, aesthetic, geographical and functional. This knowledge lives in my knowledge-base and can be used to restimulate memories and facts of use to my family, and potentially real estate agents!
‘80 Rahera Street’ – As a piece of information, is an address to a specific geographical location. This can be put in a database and be used to confirm my identity and to send me stuff.

Often people working in the KM space, attempt to resolve the KM vs IM confusion by stating that they are working on the people-side of KM. Thus distinguishing themselves from the IM part (i.e. information technology and systems) under a KM umbrella.

So next time you are defining or implementing a KM strategy/solution – check: are you doing knowledge-people stuff as well as information-systems stuff? If you are focusing on information-systems stuff, then you are making IM change not KM.

And why does it matter? Because KM approaches and skills are different than IM, and you might be attempting the equivalent of building a house with cooking tools and techniques. (For ideas on KM techniques see The work of Knowledge Mgmt vs Information Mgmt.)

Helen Palmer is Principal Consultant at RHX Group. She thinks critically about knowledge work, and how 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.

What is it to ‘manage’?

I’ve recently got frustrated about a lack of management ability in people with whom I was collaborating:

  • They couldn’t keep track on what they said/wrote, or what they agreed to provide
  • They couldn’t respond or act within negotiated schedule, nor had time or presence of mind to renegotiate
  • They said yes to things with good intentions and little realistic ability or capacity to deliver

So it got me thinking – if I want to encourage or facilitate different behaviour, what knowledge or behaviour am I seeking?

What is it to manage something? With the answer to this question, surely it is possible to plan, execute and measure efficacious action. Here’s what I came up with.

To manage something is to:

  1. Know what you have (description, characteristic, breadth and depth)
  2. Know what state it is in (right now)
  3. Know what you could do with it (now or in the future)
  4. Know what you want to do with it (purpose)
  5. Be prepared to make a decision or act quickly and accurately
  6. Be able to ‘plan’ a series of actions in consideration of time, resources, budget, people, promises, expectations, etc

And I think this can be applied regardless of what you are managing, i.e.
Work (i.e. Action tasks)
Vegetation and vermin (This one is inspired by a sign I saw in provincial Victoria.)

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.