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National Governmental Knowledge Management: KM, Adaptation, and Complexity: Part One

July 23rd, 2008 · 6 Comments


National Governmental Knowledge Management

The primary focus of Knowledge Management, thus far, has been on organizations, communities, and teams, with some emphasis on Personal Knowledge Management (PKM), and “Knowledge Cities.” Knowledge Management in Government has primarily continued the organizational focus of most work in the field. It is agency-based and project-focused, and has had little to say about Knowledge Management at the level of a National Government taken as a whole. This post and the one following is about a vision for National Governmental Knowledge Management. The vision will be brief and will gloss over all sorts of details and problems, as is perhaps appropriate for this initial presentation using a blog format. It has two objectives. First to present ideas for decentralized KM that allows for decentralized Knowledge Management and Distributed Problem Solving. And second, to present ideas for a central KM agency that will (a) enable decentralized KM in various locales in Governments, by providing new knowledge and information about KM and knowledge processing, and also (b) provide for KM accountability to National fiduciaries representing the citizenry.

Adaptation, Knowledge Management, and Complexity

Any human organization, including a Government, must cope with the twin problems of integration and adaptation. Integration involves organizing a Government’s activities to maintain its identity and its unity in pursuing its primary goals and objectives. Adaptation involves organizing an organization’s activities to cope with changes in its environment affecting that organization. It presupposes the existence of knowledge about how to cope with and survive challenges resulting from these changes, whether they’re anticipated or not.

Or, at the very least, it requires producing such knowledge in the process of solving problems, as well as integrating new knowledge so that it’s available when needed. It also presupposes the existence of knowledge about how to solve problems, and how to learn, when the need to do so presents itself. Thus, high quality learning, problem-solving, and production and integration of relevant new knowledge (that is, innovation) in response to Governmental problems, are an essential requirement for successful adaptation in Governments and Nations.

In short, learning, problem solving, and knowledge processing are essential functions of Governments, and other large scale systems too, because knowledge is the resource that such systems use to adapt. This brings up the question of how Governments can see to it that performance of these functions is is done well. And this brings us to Knowledge Management. Knowledge Management is an activity intended to enhance knowledge processing. Extending this simple statement a bit, it is activity intended to enhance the following behavioral processes:

— problem seeking, recognition, and formulation,

— knowledge production (creating or discovering new knowledge), and

— knowledge integration (making the new knowledge available to others in the system through broadcasting, searching/retrieving, teaching, and sharing).

Now that I’ve outlined a very abstract notion of Knowledge Management, we are almost ready to begin to address the question of how it should be organized in National Governments. But first, I need to say a few words about complexity. National Governments are Complex Adaptive Systems. That means they have coherence in the face of change, or “identity.” Coherence refers to the maintenance of the characteristic pattern of organization of a CAS through time. Coherence in a National Government’s overall pattern of organization persists in spite of the continuous change occurring in its agents, the materials it may use, the challenges it is called upon to meet, and the specific responses it produces. The process of maintaining coherence or identity in the face of environmental changes, also referred to as “self-making,” is called “autopoiesis” by Maturana and Varela.

Further, agents in a CAS self-organize to produce emergent global behavior. This is one of the most important features of National Governments and CASs.

The key idea is that the agents comprising a CAS, act in accordance with their own purposes and motives, in pursuit of their own goals, and that their actions produce self-organization, without any centralized planning or control, and in a way that we cannot model successfully, resulting in the recognizable pattern of global organization that identifies the CAS. Of course, in National Governments, there is centralized planning and control as well as distributed planning and control. Nevertheless, there is still emergence of unplanned global behavior and other features that determine distinctive characteristics varying among National Governments.

In such systems, distributed problem-solving and knowledge processing are important. Individuals in National Governments solve their own problems. In doing so, they contribute to solving the problems of National Governments in a distributed, but, nonetheless, organized fashion. In addition, the ability of National Governments to learn and develop new and effective knowledge is greater to the extent that their constituent agents are operating in problem-solving and distributed knowledge processing environments marked by relative “openness.” The more “openness” in the distributed knowledge processing environment, the greater the adaptive capability of the National Government, provided that the ability to learn of its agents remains constant. The reasons for this are that openness allows the National Governments to take advantage of the variety of skills and capabilities of individuals and collectives in the CAS, and also that it supports self-organization of informal structures in the system, that, in turn, support its distributed problem solving capability.

The Organization of Knowledge Management in National Governments

Knowledge Management is as old as self-conscious human beings. Since the first time humans became aware of learning and its knowledge outcomes, the question of how they could improve their learning sub-processes must have occurred to them, and measures that they thought would be effective in enhancing their capacity to learn must have been of interest to them. The first time a human used one of these measures, she or he was doing Knowledge Management, even though there was no word to label activities intended to enhance knowledge processing.

So, it’s no exaggeration to say that every agency in National Government, every inter-agency project or program, and every individual, as well, performs some KM activity, and has always done so. With the development of formal KM in the late 1980s, however, the question arises as to how to organize KM activities in National Governments, and also how to decide which agencies, and inter-agency projects and programs can benefit from a formal KM structure and which can continue to be handled informally, through individual efforts and self-organizing group structures?

The first possible answer to these questions is to have no formal KM at all. One rationale for this answer to my questions is that any formal organization of KM is likely to interfere with self-organization of initial knowledge processing activities. Since, it may be argued, self-organization is best for enabling creativity, it is also true that there should be no formal KM activity which may interfere with this creativity and impose the kind of command and control activities that will be counter-productive from the standpoint of distributed and creative problem solving.

This “no formal KM position” can be doubted, however. It is dependent on the idea that there is nothing we can do to encourage and enable creativity, but must take a completely passive position and simply let it emerge. Put another way, it says that we can do nothing to either intentionally construct an “ecology of rationality,” or to systematically disrupt other ecologies that undermine rational approaches to problem solving/knowledge making. While this position may be true, it also may be false, and to accept it without testing out this theory by attempting to construct such ecologies, is to enable a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a word, to know whether this position is correct, we must try to refute it by attempting to organize and implement KM in National Governments to see whether it can produce the ecology of rationality that will work to enhance knowledge processing throughout such Governments.

To Be Continued

Tags: Complexity · KM Techniques · Knowledge Integration · Knowledge Making · Knowledge Management

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