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Is Knowledge Paradoxical?

April 19th, 2008 · 1 Comment


This week Dave Snowden discussed my views in two of his blog entries. My last blog entry, “Is There A Correct Interpretation of Hamlet?” answered his first entry. This blog installment and at least one, perhaps two, following it will begin to answer his second entitled: “Wave-particle duality.”

I must admit I had a funny feeling reading Dave’s piece. Given the title, I expected it would deal with his view that knowledge is both a thing and a flow, with the wave-particle duality, and with the idea of “paradox,” three ideas that were closely related in his original paper, “Complex Acts of Knowing.” However, instead, it contained at least 9 different issues that I find I want to comment on. Here are the 9 issues:

  1. Dave charges that Mark McElroy used a “strawman” of his views in our critical paper, “Generations of Knowledge Management” (also Ch. 4 in our book, Key Issues in the New Knowledge Management
  2. “If you think in categories, then the world is presented in categories or a failure to categorize.”
  3. “Joe wants to create categories (hierarchical and otherwise) and that such a way of thinking is antithetical in language and form of argument to understanding a world informed by complexity science.”
  4. In “Complex Acts of Knowing” Dave “introduced the Cynefin framework and argued that we needed to understand that different approaches to knowledge management, communities etc applied depending on the context and that it was a mistake to argue for one approach over another without first developing an understanding of the nature of the system.”
  5. “I also argued for a recognition that We always know more than we can say and we can always say more than we can write down was key to KM and that we had to learn to handle narrative and experience as much as we handled content and information centric views.”
  6. “By way of introduction I made reference to three generations of understanding KM. The pre-Nonaka period characterised by data warehousing and decision support, the Nonaka period characterised by attempts to make tacit knowledge explicit and early attempts at collaboration, and then a third or post Nonaka period which would recognise the importance of narrative etc. Joe and Mark spent a considerable amount of time arguing that I had failed to realise that the most important distinction was between Knowledge Processing and Knowledge Management, and that their (Or Mark’s) understanding of this was the fault line between first and second generation KM.”
  7. For Joe categories are important. Thus (as he does in the paper) if he can find examples for Nonaka like thinking in the pre-Nonaka period then my talking about three generations has to be false. Now the whole point about generations is that they overlap – Your father does not have to die so that you can exist. I was creating a way of viewing history as an unfolding and overlapping series of events not a set of categories where things were right or wrong.”
  8. The knowledge as thing and flow/wave-particle duality issue
  9. “Recognising ambiguity and its nature through paradox, but avoiding a surrender to relativism and social constructivism (understood as a universal) is essential to making progress in this and related fields” is important for making progress in KM.

In this blog I’ll comment on the strawman (issue 1), knowledge as thing and flow (issue 8), and paradox (issue 9) issues. I’ll take up the other 6 in future blog installments.

Strawman Fallacy?

Dave begins his critique by characterizing “Generations of Knowledge Management” as an example of the strawman fallacy, which he defines as: “describing what I say in a way I do not recognize, and then attacking the representation.” Now, I think it’s very convenient for the recipient of criticism to define “the strawman fallacy” this way, but I also think it’s an instance of both extreme chutzpa and serious distortion of the strawman notion.

A strawman argument represents another’s view in an inaccurate and an unfair way that overstates it and is easier to refute, then the other’s actual position, and then proceeds to attribute that view to the other, and, finally, to refute it. Whether or not someone has created a strawman has nothing whatever to do with whether the recipient of the criticism “recognizes” the description, analysis, or characterization of a critic. Sorry Dave, you can’t be both the author of a theory and the arbiter of whether its critics have “strawmanned” you or not. It’s really up to third parties to render that verdict.

Now, since I’m one of the principals in this critical exchange, I, too, can’t be the one to determine whether the critique Mark and I delivered in “Generations of Knowledge Management” rendered Dave’s views in an inaccurate or oversimlplified way, But I will say that we were very mindful of the “strawman” issue when we wrote our original paper, and we worked very hard to fairly and accurately represent the views
expressed in the paper fairly. We quote liberally from his paper, and in detail, and where some concepts were unclear we sought clarification in other papers written by Dave and in some of the publications he referenced. Moreover, I do not believe there is another examination of “Complex Acts of Knowing” or the Cynefin framework, even nearly 6 years after ours was written, that is as detailed and careful in its analysis as our paper is. I’m confident that if readers of this blog read both papers, and whether or not they agree with our critique, they will generally find that the “strawman fallacy” is not at issue here.

Knowledge Duality and Paradox?

About the knowledge duality issue Dave’s latest piece says:

“In respect of my saying that knowledge was paradoxically a thing and a flow and the reference to Physics, Joe and Mark say ‘This is all very neat, but it is also very problematic: (1) Philosophers have learned much from paradox, but this doesn’t mean that paradox in the definition of knowledge is necessarily good for KM, especially if there is no paradox. (2) It is not true that physicists have concluded that electrons are both particles and waves. Rather, electrons are things that may be described using a particle model under certain conditions and a wave model under others. The reason why there is no contradiction or paradox in this view is that physicists know enough not to claim that electrons are both waves and particles, but that they are a third thing entirely.’

Again I dismissed this at the time as a failure to understand the nature of paradox. The whole point about paradox is that it allows us to reference a third and as yet not fully understood state. A potential Hegelian synthesis. However if you think in categories this sort of ambiguity has to be removed. Hence the debates on Hamlet.”

This reply of Dave’s to part of “Generations of KM,” questioning his view of knowledge, may seem fair and reasonable to some reading only his blog because Dave quotes one of its telling passages against his view and then charges that Mark McElroy and I fail to understand “paradox,” “potential Hegelian synthesis,” and also commit the sins of thinking in categories, and needing to remove all ambiguity. However, all we really objected to in his paper was his claim about the necessity of paradox and ambiguity in defining knowledge when neither was necessary.

Also, Dave took the quote from us out of context. And to assess his charges about our lack of understanding of paradox and the rest, I think it’s pretty important to look at more of the context. Dave should have few objections to that since he is always telling others about the importance of context in sharing knowledge.

In “Complex Acts of Knowing” Dave says:

“Some of the basic concepts underpinning knowledge management are now being challenged: “Knowledge is not a “thing”, or a system, but an ephemeral, active process of relating.”

Mark McElroy and I, in response to that, said (p. 20):

“Taken from Stacey (2001), this definition suffers from, or at least creates, a process-product confusion. It is fueled by a desire to focus on the dynamics of knowledge creation, rather than only on explicit codified outcomes or mental beliefs. However, we can do this without becoming confused just by distinguishing knowledge processes from knowledge products or outcomes. Knowledge processes are not any less important because we call them “knowledge processes” rather than “knowledge” (the “ephemeral active process of relating”).

Why should we avoid the process-product confusion? First, if we take the view that knowledge is a process, we can no longer talk about knowledge as embedded in cultural products, or even knowledge as beliefs or predispositions in minds. Or knowledge as “true” or “false,” since processes are neither true or false, but only existent or non-existent.

Next, if we tolerate the confusion, it doesn’t allow us to account for the content of cultural products or beliefs or predispositions in minds. So we are left with the problem of finding words other than knowledge to describe these very real phenomena. The real question is: what do we gain by calling knowledge “an ephemeral, active process of relating”? What does it do for us? In our view it only adds confusion in a field that is already replete with it, because some people insist on using words for their “halo effect” rather than for their descriptive value.

To us, it seems clear that knowledge is not a process but an outcome of knowledge production and integration processes. In other words, we believe that knowledge should be viewed as a “thing,” not a process. We also believe that as specified elsewhere (Firestone, 2001), knowledge is not a single thing, but is divided into three types: physical, mental, and cultural. All are things, and more specifically are encoded structures in systems that help those systems respond and adapt to changes in their environments.”

Since Mark and I wrote this last in 2002, I’ve changed my mind about the “encoded structures” claim in the above. I now believe that physical and mental knowledge in living systems is emergent, meaning that it is formed through the active interaction of a living system with its environment. Cultural knowledge is created as part of emergent processes, but as a product it is encoded in cultural artifacts.

Next, Dave criticized the notion that knowledge is a thing in this way: “. . mainstream theory and practice have adopted a Kantian epistemology in which knowledge is perceived as a thing,something absolute, awaiting discovery through scientific investigation.” (ibid.)

As Mark and I say our paper, however (p. 21):

“To say knowledge is a thing may be Kantian, or sometimes even Platonist for that matter, but to label it in this way is not to criticize the idea on its merits. Furthermore, to say that knowledge is a thing is not to say that it is “absolute,” or that it is “awaiting discovery through scientific investigation.” That is, knowledge can be (a) a thing, (b) produced by social processes of many kinds, and not just processes of scientific investigation, much less awaiting discovery by the latter, and (c) can also be either false or true. So there is nothing “absolute” about it.

Dave also said: “In the third generation we grow beyond managing knowledge as a thing to also managing knowledge as a flow. To do this we will need to focus more on context and narrative, than on content.” (ibid.)

But what did Dave mean here by “managing knowledge as a flow?” Did he mean managing knowledge processes as one would expect from his earlier statement that knowledge was not a thing but a process? Not really, for he went on to say:

“Properly understood knowledge is paradoxically both a thing and a flow; in the second age we looked for things and in consequence found things, in the third age we look for both in different ways and embrace the consequent paradox.” (ibid., p. 102)

And we replied: (p 22)

“Here we see a shift in Snowden’s view. As we saw above he begins by characterizing knowledge as a process and creating a process-product confusion, but ends by claiming that it is both a “thing” and a “flow,” thereby creating a process-product redundancy (to wit, flows are things). This he denies is a redundancy, treats as a seeming contradiction, and terms a “paradox.” He then defends paradox, by pointing out that philosophers have learned much from paradox, and also that physicists have had to live for many decades with the paradox that electrons are both particles and waves.

This is all very neat, but it is also very problematic:

(1) Philosophers have learned much from paradox, but this doesn’t mean that paradox in the definition of knowledge is necessarily good for KM, especially if there is no paradox.

(2) It is not true that physicists have concluded that electrons are both particles and waves. Rather, electrons are things that may be described using a particle model under certain conditions and a wave model under others. The reason why there is no contradiction or paradox in this view is that physicists know enough not to claim that electrons are both waves and particles, but that they are a third thing entirely. Indeed, this is the key lesson embodied in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

And (3), and most importantly, Snowden hasn’t established the need to call knowledge both a thing and a flow and thereby embrace paradox, contradiction or redundancy, much less another age of KM founded on paradox.”

All we need do, instead, is to say that knowledge is an outcome or product (thing) that is produced by human social processes (process). This allows us to deal with both dynamics and outcomes, an ability that has always existed in general systems theory.

So, the effort to establish knowledge first as a process, and then as a “thing” and a “flow,” doesn’t work. It offers no advantages that the process-product view of KM doesn’t. But it does offer the disadvantages of logical contradiction, redundancy, or perhaps (unnecessary) paradox, if one accepts Dave’s assertion.

Given the importance of the view of knowledge as ‘flow’ to the Cynefin model, it is critical to understand what he means by the term, and why he claims it is paradoxical in relation to the view of knowledge as a ‘thing.’ Earlier we noted the confusion caused by this language by pointing out that flows are things. Putting that aside, however, where, exactly, is the claimed contradiction between the terms in this case, or the paradox between them?

To say that knowledge flows and is also a thing, which Dave does in parts of “Complex Acts of Knowing,” is not to invoke a contradiction at all or even a paradox. On the other hand, if Dave had said that knowledge is both a thing that does not flow, on the one hand, and a thing that does flow on the other, then we would indeed have a contradiction or a paradox. But this does not seem to be what he says at all. Rather, what he seems to be saying is that knowledge flows – not that knowledge is flow, but that it (as a ‘thing’) is subject to movement. But where’s the paradox in that?

Later on in “Generations of KM,” Mark and I also say this: (pp. 37-38)

“Another possible interpretation of Snowden’s claims about knowledge as flow is that he’s really not talking about knowledge at all. Rather, he’s talking about a process whose outcomes are knowledge (i.e., learning and innovation). But here we encounter, once again, the product/ process confusion we covered before. The flow of knowledge (process) should not be regarded as knowledge. Both are things, but they are not the same things. The flow of knowledge occurs between various stages (or states) in the processes of knowledge production and integration, but to say that knowledge flows between the stages of a process is not to say that knowledge is a flow.

Turning to other sources for what flow could possibly mean to Snowden in this context, we see the term heavily used in two fields closely related to Knowledge Management. One is complex adaptive systems (CAS) theory, a bedrock of Snowden’s own hypothesis, and the other is system dynamics, a closely related field in which the nonlinearity of complex systems is modeled and studied.

To CAS theorists, flows are movements of things between nodes and across connectors in networks (Holland, 1995, p. 23). In Holland’s
treatment of this subject, he states: “In CAS the flows through these networks vary over time; moreover nodes and connections can appear and disappear as the agents adapt or fail to adapt. Thus neither the flows nor the networks are fixed in time. They are patterns that reflect changing adaptations as time elapses and experience accumulates.” (ibid.).

Now, if this is what Snowden (and Stacey) mean by “ephemeral, active process[es] of relating,” (Snowden, 2002, p. 101), again, we fail to see the paradox and see only confusion, instead. Holland and other CAS theorists are not claiming that the things that flow across ephemeral networks are the same things as the ephemeral networks, themselves. A sharp distinction between the two is made with no paradox involved, nor any need for one. And so we fail to see how the use of the term ‘flows’ in the literature on CASs could be used to support Snowden’s claim of a paradox in the view of knowledge, or in the Cynefin model.

In the system dynamics arena, “stocks and flows” are central to the lingua franca of the field. Flows in system dynamics refer to streams of things (which are otherwise held in “stocks”) moving at different rates of speed and with different degrees of frequency, with or without delays. But flows as things are never confused with the things that they carry. And so here again, we fail to see how the historical use of the term ‘flows’ necessarily leads to any sort of contradiction or paradox.

In sum, while Snowden purports to use the term ‘flow’ as a noun (as in, knowledge is flow) in his definition of knowledge, his actual use of the term in his discussion seems confined to its use as a verb (as in, knowledge flows). Thus, he never manages to provide a satisfactory definition for knowledge as flow. On the other hand, to the extent that he implies that flow may be a process, the process he refers to is arguably one that produces and/or transfers knowledge, but which is not the same as knowledge itself. For all of these reasons, we find Snowden’s claim of a paradox in the third age definition of knowledge to be unpersuasive and full of confusions.”

So, in my view of Dave’s most recent criticism of “Generations of Knowledge Management,” as failing to take account of knowledge duality and “paradox,”is quite misplaced. Our analysis shows that there is no paradox, and also no need for a Hegelian synthesis, though there is quite a bit of process/product confusion. Dave says that in this last we are mistaken, and that our mistake is due to our insistence on thinking in terms of categories, which, in turn, prevents our understanding of the “paradox” he has shown us. But I think we have no special category thinking problem not shared by other human beings, including Dave himself, and I will address this issue as well as some of the other issues raised by Dave in a future blog entry.

Tags: Complexity · Epistemology/Ontology/Value Theory · Knowledge Making · Knowledge Management

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 KM 2.0 and Knowledge Management: Part Thirteen // Sep 19, 2008 at 1:38 am

    […] Snowden thinks that knowledge has a dualistic nature and is both a thing and a flow, a view that I’ve critiqued in the past, and that, incidentally, has little basis in either philosophy or neural science. (Not […]