All Life Is Problem Solving

Joe Firestone’s Blog on Knowledge and Knowledge Management

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Knowledge Management and Conflict: Part One, Seeing Problems and Making Knowledge

April 29th, 2009 · 3 Comments


Recently, in the actkm group, my friend Stephen Bounds raised the question of the relationship of KM to conflict in the context of a specific situation in which excessive conflict behavior within a project team was threatening successful completion of the project. This led to a pretty vigorous discussion and a great variety of opinions and comments about KM and conflict. I made one myself. But I didn’t feel it really did justice to the question of the general relationship between KM and conflict behavior. Hence the present blog in which I look at the issue from the viewpoint of the KMCI three-tier model.

Knowledge Management is activity intended to enhance knowledge processing including: problem seeking, recognition, and formulation; knowledge production (or problem solving); and knowledge integration (communicating knowledge to others). Knowledge processing, in turn, results in new knowledge and information which then influences decisions and actions in the context of business processing. And that’s the three-tier model. There’s a bottom tier of operational business processing, activity, and outcomes; there’s a middle-tier of knowledge processing activity and knowledge and information outcomes; and there’s a top-tier of knowledge management activity and its outcomes including its influence on knowledge processing.

Now, conflict behavior by an agent is activity which, in a particular situation, results in outcomes having negative value for other agents. Clearly, conflict behavior can occur in all three tiers of the model, and the immediate question which arises is the relationship of KM to conflict occurring in each of the tiers. Let’s begin by discussing the relationship of KM to conflict in the bottom tier.

Since KM is about enhancing the second tier, it has little direct interaction with bottom tier activities, and therefore has very little direct relationship with operational business conflicts. There’s one area, however, where KM does need to enhance bottom-tier activity. That area is at the boundary of operational activity and knowledge processing, and it relates specifically to problem seeking. Without active problem seeking, there will be fewer problems recognized and formulated, fewer knowledge life cycles to solve problems and integrate and share the solutions, and therefore less innovation in teams and other collectives. In the sustainability code, there are two rules important for problem seeking that KM should seek to get accepted in any collective: 1) All knowledge used as a basis for individual and/or shared action by members – in the context of the collective – shall always be open to criticism, and no such knowledge shall ever be regarded by any member as true with certainty. This is the FALLIBILITY rule. And 2) All members of the collective shall employ their best efforts to seek, recognize, and formulate problems in existing knowledge through critical evaluation of the performance of that knowledge in action. This is the LOOKING FOR TROUBLE rule.

Now, getting these rules institutionalized in a team or other collective isn’t easy, and requires continuing effort and support of the leadership of the collective, with eventual “buy-in” from the members. It may require more generalized culture change, if the level of mistrust and conflict in a team is already high. Or if the culture is one where the idea of fallibility is unpalatable, and where critical evaluation of existing practices is unwelcome because it contravenes other norms related to status and “face,” then KM policies designed to institutionalize these two rules may create higher levels of mistrust and conflict then existed previously. I’ve written here and here, about things one can do to enhance problem seeking, recognition, and formulation; and these same things can resolve conflicts about problem seeking, and also help to institutionalize the two rules. Many organizations have done this successfully, including organizations like Toyota, Alcoa, and a number of others Steven Spear writes about in his Chasing the Rabbit.

Problem seeking, recognition, and formulation are activities that overlap the first and second tiers. Once a problem is found, recognized, and formulated, conflict may then enter knowledge production in the sub-processes of knowledge production, including information acquisition, aggregating individual and group learning, knowledge claim formulation, and knowledge claim evaluation, because each of these sub-processes may involve social interaction and/or collaboration among participants. Conflict in the first three of these sub-processes is of less consequence than it is in knowledge claim evaluation, because all three of these activities can be performed effectively by individuals or like-minded factions within teams, without everyone having to come together and decide on an alternative. That is, in these three activities, conflicts that may arise don’t have to be resolved. But conflict in knowledge claim evaluation is different. It frequently arises between individuals, and among individuals and team factions, and then must be resolved to arrive at the team’s or collective’s solution to a problem. This means that there must be accepted procedures for resolving conflicts, and deciding on which knowledge claims a team prefers over others.

Conflicts in knowledge claim evaluation can be resolved through authoritarian decision making (ADM), recognition-primed decision making, (RPD) or comparative decision making (CDM). I’ve reviewed these in earlier blogs and you can review the details here. The important point here is that ADM and RPD decision making processes are likely to resolve conflicts in knowledge claim evaluation in ways that maintain or increase mistrust and future intense conflict because they are based purely on individual judgments and include no transparent procedures that can give participants in the process a feeling that the decision to accept a knowledge claim is fair and in accord with the objective of finding a solution that works. CDM can be more effective in creating greater trust and in enabling future conflicts that are civil and will also enable future transparent decisions, but not always. It depends on the type of CDM involved.

In a previous post, I reviewed four styles of CDM, distinguished by four different regulative ideals. One of these, the ideal of fair critical comparison to evaluate which of a set of alternative solutions stands up best to the most severe criticisms and safe-fail tests that can be developed, is the one best suited to engender feelings of trust and legitimacy, since it involves a transparent and participatory process in which all alternatives are compared on a level playing field in the context of a number of comparative evaluation criteria.

Well, the above is a summary of how conflict enters knowledge production. Now, what can and should KM do about it? Its objective should not be to influence knowledge production in such a way that conflict behavior in knowledge claim evaluation is eliminated. First, conflict can be repressed only by authoritarian means, and such methods run counter to the temper and mission of KM which is facilitative and oriented toward stimulating self-organization. They also are counter-productive in maintaining an open and fair process of comparative evaluation of alternative knowledge claims. Second, conflict in knowledge claim evaluation is just part of the process itself. Of course, people will disagree. Of course, they will feel personally involved. Of course, they will be biased toward certain alternatives and away from others. Of course, there will be a political dimension to knowledge claim evaluation and not just a truth seeking or “what works” dimension. All of these things and more aspects of messy conflict provide the necessary motivation for successful knowledge claim evaluation.

So, third, the objective of KM in enhancing knowledge claim evaluation should be to channel conflict into fair critical comparison of knowledge claims but not to eliminate it. If people can be brought to the point of formulating and accepting a fair critical comparison process, then the results of applying that process are likely to produce the legitimacy and trust, as well as the knowledge quality results that we seek. Fair critical comparison can use the energy of conflict to resolve it, at least temporarily, until the next knowledge life cycle, through decisions based on the performance track record produced by fair critical comparison. In this previous post, I’ve talked about how KM can enhance processes of evaluating and selecting among new ideas, and move an organization towards fair critical comparison in knowledge claim evaluation and towards an open problem solving pattern. In the KM context, I’ve talked about moving toward the open enterprise, which is the same thing. In a second blog on this subject, I’ll talk about KM and conflict in the context of knowledge integration.

To Be Continued

Tags: Complexity · Knowledge Making · Knowledge Management

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Stephen Bounds // May 2, 2009 at 8:54 am

    Hi Joe,

    I really enjoyed this post. Thanks for expanding on our previous discussion on actKM. No specific comments in return just yet, but it was a very thought-provoking read!

  • 2 Joe // May 3, 2009 at 12:26 am


    Thanks very much for your comment. I’m thinking through Part Two.


  • 3 Knowledge Management and Conflict: Part Two, Integrating Knowledge // May 3, 2009 at 11:10 pm

    […] my last KM blog, I analyzed the relationships between KM and conflict, in the context of seeing problems and making […]