Knowing… the what, why, how and who

Way back in 1996 the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development identified 4 different kinds of knowledge which are important in the knowledge-based economy: know-what, know-why, know-how and know-who. I have found this view helpful in building my understanding of knowledge, and knowledge networks and communities of practice.

Here is a short summary of the types of information identified and how it was traditionally “learnt”:

know-what (facts) this can be seen as “information” and learnt from books, lectures, etc.
know-why (scientific knowledge)
know-how (skills and capabilities) learning by doing
know-who (social relations that allow access to specialists) learned in social practice

The digital and connected nature of our information society is, however, changing how we interact with information and how we acquire these types of knowledge:

Knowledge which can be reduced to information (know-what and know-why) is no longer scarce, it is more than abundant and we can access it when and where we want to. A consequence of this information-rich environment is a decrease in the need to know-what and know-why.

Know-how, to the skills and capability to do something, has traditionally been learnt socially: a student learning from an authority figure, and practically: “learning-by-doing”. Information and communication technologies are also changing the nature of know-how:  the practical and social aspects are being replaced in some cases by the affordances of technology. I can learn from an instructional video, I do not need a master or a practical setting in which to learn the know-how of many skills. With technology, it becomes possible to codify some forms of know-how and make it more explicit. Other forms of know-how are more tacit – embodied in expertise and best transferred in the form of stories or through coaching or apprenticeship (Archer, 2009, p.68). These types of knowledge creation and transfer can be facilitated in communities or networks of practice.

Know-who relates to the social relationships which enable access to experts and their knowledge. The know-who seem to be present in knowledge networks: those who know, those who are learning, and the connected relationships between them. It relates to socially embedded knowledge and the mechanisms for social creation of knowledge which cannot can be facilitated by ICT (but not replaced by it).


Archer, N. (2009). Classification of communities of practice. In E-collaboration: Concepts, methodologies, tools, and applications (pp. 67-77). Hershey, PA.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (1996). The knowledge based economy (Report No. OCDE/GD(96)102). Retrieved from

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