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Supporting different kinds of knowledge aquisition and exchange with technology

April 16th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

In the past, I spent a lot of time researching different kinds of knowledge and how they could be supported by vocational education and training. In particular, I was trying to counter the reductionist approach, as embodied in the then National Vocational Qualifications in the UK, which came from a narrow understanding of competence. Lately I have been returning to that research to try to understand how technologies can support the development of vocational competence and knowledge in a workplace setting.

This is an extract from a paper entitled  ‘Work process knowledge, Communities of Practice and the development and introduction of mobile learning applications in the workplace’, submitted by myself, Ludger Deitmer, Lars Heinemann and Pekka Kamarainen to the ECTEL 2013 conference. You can download the full paper in PDF format here.

When thinking about knowledge development in a richer way, it may be useful to distinguish between different types of knowledge. Lundvall and Johnson (1994) identify four different kinds of knowledge, each requiring different types of mastery: know-what, know-why, know-how, and know-who.

Know-what refers to knowledge about ‘facts’: it can be considered as equivalent to what is normally called information and related to the knowledge ‘corpus’ that each category of experts must possess. Know-why refers to scientific knowledge, influencing technological development and the pace and characteristics of its applications in industries of every kind. Also in this case, knowledge production and reproduction take place within organised processes, such as university teaching, scientific research, specialised personnel recruiting, and so on.

Know-how refers to skills – that is, the capabilities to do something in different contexts (e.g. judging the market prospects for a new product, operating a machine-tool, etc.). Of course know-how is typically a kind of knowledge developed at the individual level1, but its importance is evident also if one considers the division of labour and degree of co-operation taking place within organisations and even at the inter-organisational level (for instance, the formation of industrial net-works is largely due to the need for firms to be able to share and combine elements of know-how). Know-who is another kind of knowledge which is becoming increasingly important, referring to a mix of different kinds of skills, in particular the social skills, allowing the access and use of knowledge possessed by someone else.

Rauner et al. (2013) modified these categories in order to bring it in line with the ideas of situated learning and communities of practice, emphasising the role of work processes and the corresponding work process knowledge. The categories of know-what and know-how still refer to ‘factual’ knowledge and the ways of ‘expressing’ it in a work process. The third category, know-why, refers to why to carry out a specific task in a certain way (or, if more appropriate, in another). This modification is due to the insight, that work tasks as well as work processes in post-Taylorist work organisations do not follow a logic of right/wrong. Instead, a solution to a problem can be more or less adequate. This adequacy depends on a number of partly conflicting factors, One may programme the control of a car’s motor giving different weight to factors like acceleration, fuel consumption, high speed, exhaust emissions, etc., according to the intended main use. An electrician may counsel his or her customer on the design of a lighting system regarding costs, efficiency, ecological aspects, sustainability, ease of maintenance, etc., according to the end-users’ ideas. This, then, has the consequence that vocational learning has to address all these three dimensions of knowledge as a whole. The ‘reflective practitioner’ (Schön 1983) is not someone reflecting on what he or she has done after work, using analogue or digital media. ‘Reflection’ is a category built in the expert solution of work tasks requiring a deep knowledge of the work process a given task is embedded in.

Each kind of knowledge is characterised by different channels through which learning takes place and can be supported in different ways using technologies. The easiest cases are those of know-what and know-why, that can be obtained through the typical channels of knowledge acquisition (watching videos, accessing data bases), while the other two categories are rooted primarily in practical experience and in terms of technology enhanced learning have been more problematic insofar as they require the availability of informal social channels. Apprenticeship is a fundamental channel for acquiring know-how knowledge: it represents the most important way for skilling newcomers in an organisation, but these protracted processes of learning by doing are also frequently the responsibility of those who are considered the experts in an organisation, capable of above-average performance. Technology can be used to bring together novices and experts Simulations can be used as shortcuts for reproducing the many aspects of the know-how acquisition available in real situations. Mobile technology can capture know-how in the application of knowledge within the workplace. Know-why can be facilitated by helping to make traceable the processes guiding expert workers’ decision making. In general, this points to a use of digital media going far beyond the transmission of information.


Lundvall. B.; Johnson, B. (1994) The learning economy, Journal of Industrial Studies, 1.

Rauner, F., Heinemann, L., Maurer, A., Haasler, B. (2013) Competence Development and Assessment in TVET (COMET), Dordrecht: Springer.

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