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Potpourri: Categories and Other Issues

April 21st, 2008 · No Comments

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This is my second blog entry commenting on Dave Snowden’s “Wave-particle duality” piece. My first reply addressed the strawman, knowledge as thing and flow, and paradox issues. This one will address the other six issues he raised. Once again, they are:

1. “If you think in categories, then the world is presented in categories or a failure to categorize.”

2. “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.”

3. 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.”

4. “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.”

5. “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.”

6. 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.”

Categories, Categories

Dave seems to think that there is a special problem about using categories in our thinking, or, more precisely about using categories in our descriptions of the world, and three of the six remaining issues he raised have to do with the idea of categories. He appears to object to the very idea of expressing one’s thoughts in terms of categories when he says: “If you think in categories, then the world is presented in categories or a failure to categorize.”

I had a number of reactions to this statement. First, I asked myself. How can the world be presented as failing to categorize? Clearly what Dave must have in mind here is that if one uses categories to express oneself, then one will describe the world in categories, or will criticize others from the viewpoint that they fail to distinguish the same categories as oneself.

While I think there is a lot of truth to this statement, I also found myself asking in response: How can one talk or write about the world without categories? Don’t we need to use categories to describe our discernment of old and new patterns? That is, to describe the distinctions we discern? Don’t we, in fact, have to invent categories when we see or recognize phenomena that are as yet unnamed, in order to describe or explain to others what we have invented or recognized?

And assuming that one cannot describe or explain the world without using categories, then doesn’t Dave use categories to describe and explain things, to tell stories, and to advance theories, frameworks, and models? And if he does, doesn’t he criticize others for failing to distinguish categories that he thinks are important, or for distinguishing categories that he doesn’t wish to recognize, or for using the wrong categories? To answer these questions I took another look at “Complex Acts of Knowing,” and this is some of what I found.

In the paper Abstract, Dave distinguishes between three generations of knowledge management, uses the tacit-explicit knowledge distinction, uses the terms, “timely information” and “decision support” (both are categories), uses the term “BPR”, mentions “context,” “narrative,” and “content management” (three categories), refers to “scientific management,” refers to “complex adaptive systems” theory,” “sensemaking,” “self-organizing capabilities,” “informal communities” “natural flow model of knowledge creation, disruption, and utilisation, refers to “the argument from nature of many complexity thinkers,” “human capability,” “order,” “predictability,” ‘collective acts,” “individual acts,” “thing,” “flow,” and “diverse management approaches.”

The pattern of category use we find in the Abstract of the paper, is reflected throughout. On the second page, for example, we find a distinction between three “ages” of knowledge management. We find references to “academics,” “management,” “management science,” “Newtonian Science,” “quantum mechanics,” “phase shift,” “dogma,” “medieval,” “Enlightenment,” “esoteric complication,” “new simplicity,” “meaning,” “missionary enthusiasm,” “consultants” “pre-existing “primitive” cultures,” “rape,” “pillage,” “disillusionment,” “knowledge gained through experience,” “traditional forms of knowledge transfer,” “apprentice,” “collective knowledge,” “problematic,” “SECI model,” “socialisation,” “externalisation,” “combination,” “internalisation,” “dualistic,” “dialectical,” “knowledge capture,” “collaborative computing,” “Intranets,” “extranets,” “Japanese tradition of “Oneness,”” rational, analytical, and Cartesian,” “innovation,” “manufacturing processes,” “knowledge programmes,””organisational asset,” “more holistic and dialectical view.” All of these are categories.

As we move through the rest of the paper, we find categories on every page. We find distinctions between “upper and lower levels of acceptable abstraction in any knowledge exchange,” “teaching and learning cultures,” “Ba” and “Cynefin,” “open spaces or domains of knowledge” or “sensemaking,” “Bureaucratic/Structured: teaching, low abstraction, “Professional /Logical: teaching, high abstraction,” “Informal/Interdependent: Learning, high abstraction,” “Uncharted/Innovative: Learning, low abstraction,” “complicated systems,” “complex systems,” and “chaotic systems,” “known complicated systems,” “knowable complicated systems,” “knowledge flows,” and “Just in Time Knowledge Management.”

So, Dave certainly does create, and use categories in expressing his views and describing the world. And if he does, doesn’t he criticize others for failing to distinguish categories that he thinks are important, or for distinguishing categories that he doesn’t wish to recognize, or for using the wrong categories? The answer is, of course. In “Complex Acts of Knowing,” he criticizes scientific management for using the language of cause and effect. He criticizes those who assume that knowledge is a “thing,” and those who don’t distinguish knowledge as a thing from knowledge as a flow. In exchanges with me in the actkm.org group he has criticized my distinctions among biological, mental, and cultural knowledge, and has claimed that my classification of system types is less desirable than his because it is “more complex” and also “hierarchical.” He criticizes “quality management” approaches because they refuse to recognize “complexity.” In short, he does all the things I have named above.

Moving on to Dave’s statement that: “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.” I think that either this statement is untrue or that it applies equally well to Dave’s own theorizing, since in “Complex Acts of Knowing,” and elsewhere he uses categories liberally, and also where and when he pleases. He also uses hierarchies as when he divides “complicated” systems, into the “known” and the “unknowable,” knowledge into “tacit” and “explicit,” and knowledge, again, into “things and flows.” Now, it may be true that my particular set of categories “is antithetical in language and form of argument to understanding a world informed by complexity science.” But, if so, I think Dave needs to make that argument.

Earlier, in actkm exchanges we approached that discussion. I offered an alternative classification of system types to Dave’s. The exchange did not show that my classification was inferior to Dave’s. Rather, my classification was more complex and richer in detail than his, while his was simpler and non-hierarchical than mine. In the course of the exchange, it became clear that Dave was using his “types” to describe differing system states or strange attractors in phase space. However, when asked, he could not make explicit the dimensions or coordinate axes of his phase space, leaving the conceptual basis for his classification of system types unclear, and suggesting that my question about coordinate axes was motivated by attachment to categorical thinking and had nothing to do with what it is necessary to know to track the dynamics of a system in phase space. I leave it to my readers to evaluate how much sense this response makes.

The third “category” issue raised by Dave, once again, is stated this way: “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.”

This third issue really gets to what this “category” debate is all about. It’s not really that I use categories and Dave doesn’t, but rather that I’ve used categorical distinctions and related analysis to question Dave’s interpretations and claims about facts. In “Generations of KM,” Mark and I criticized Dave’s three ages view of Knowledge Management by juxtaposing our own two generations view, by questioning whether his facts about the first two ages are correct, and also and most importantly based on whether his conceptual distinctions between the three ages are important from a theoretical perspective.

Above, he says that our criticism of his three ages view is false, because it doesn’t recognize that his three categories are fuzzy, and that there is considerable overlap of ages or generations. But I think that here Dave is missing the point. We criticized his three ages theory of KM change because we disagreed with his characterization of the facts as well as because we thought we had a better set of categories for describing change in KM. Thus, Dave characterizes the first age as mostly about “information for decision support.” At one level that’s correct, but: (Generations of KM, p. 7)

 

First, was there really no more to the first age of KM than “information for decision support”? If so, then why was the term KM used at all? After all, the field of business intelligence provides information for decision support. So do data warehousing and data mining. And so does the still broader category of Decision Support Systems (DSS). So what was the term KM supposed to signify that those other terms do not?

 

Second, also, if there was no more than information for decision support to the first age, then what were the attempts to distinguish data, information, knowledge and wisdom about? What was the development of Xerox’s community of practice for the exchange of knowledge among technicians about? What was knowledge sharing at Buckman laboratories in 1987 and 1992 (Rumizen, 1998) about? Where does Hubert St. Onge’s work (See Stewart, 1999) on the relationship of customer capital to the learning organization fit? Or Senge’s (1990) work on systems thinking? Or Karl Wiig’s early introductions to KM (1993, 1994, 1995)?

 

In brief, Snowden’s characterization of the first age of KM as focused on providing information for decision support and implementing BPR schemes suggests much too heavy an emphasis on KM as primarily composed of IT applications to reflect the full reality of the first age. In fact, his failure to take account of the human side of KM during the first age suggests a desire for the same kind of neat distinction we find in Koenig’s analysis. In effect, Snowden, like Koenig, seems to want to say that the first age was about technology and the second age was about the role of people in Nonaka’s four modes of conversion.”

 

In other words, our factual disagreement with Dave, wasn’t just based on some earlier than 1995 “Nonaka-like thinking.” Rather, there were so many exceptions to Dave’s categorization of the period that one could drive the proverbial truck through the picture of the first age he conjectured. Nor was his conjecture characterizing the second age as essentially about working the implications of Nonaka’s SECI model any more accurate. As we said just following the above passage (ibid. p. 8):

Third, in describing the second age of KM, Snowden’s account is, once again, far too spare in its characterization. No doubt, the Nonaka and Takeuchi book has had an important and substantial impact on KM, but the period since 1995 has seen important work done in many areas not explicitly concerned with knowledge conversion.

 

These areas include semantic network analysis, the role of complex adaptive systems theory in knowledge management, systems thinking, intellectual capital, value network analysis, organizational learning, communities of practice, content management, knowledge sharing,conceptual frameworks for knowledge processing and knowledge management, knowledge management metrics, enterprise information portals, knowledge management methodology, and innovation, to name some, but far from all, areas in which important work has been done.”

 

Work in these areas was very common during the period 1995 – 2002, when we wrote our paper, and its existence belies Dave’s interpretation that KM in this age was primarily about working through the SECI model. Further, our theoretical reasons for differing with Dave’s three ages “fuzzy” categorization, can be easily stated.

 

Boiled down to its essentials, Dave almost seems to be saying:

 

  • The first age was about applying the BPR notions of Hammer and Champy (1993) on a foundation of Taylor (1912);
  • The second age was about applying the vision expressed in Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995); and
  • The coming third agre will be about applying the vision expressed in his own Cynefin model, coupled with Stacey’s notions about the paradoxical character of knowledge, and expanded through its synthesis with the systems typology.

So, Snowden’s story of change is not guided by a transcendent conceptual framework that can provide us with categories to set a context for describing change, but rather is a claim that KM proceeds from vision to vision expressed in great books and/or articles. His view provides no guide about what the next fundamental change in KM will bring, because how can we know what the rest of a story might be?”

 

On the other hand, Mark McElroy’s two generations theory of change in KM is based on the conceptual framework developed primarily by Mark and myself. Put simply, the framework distinguishes Knowledge Management from Knowledge Processing and Business Processing, and views Knowledge Management as activities enhancing Knowledge Processing.The two key knowledge processes we distinguished were knowledge production and knowledge integration. Proceeding from there, Mark’s theory says that the first generation of KM primarily focused on knowledge integration alone, and particularly on knowledge sharing, while the second generation of KM ADDED a focus on knowledge production. We think the first generation of KM ranged from about 1990-1999 or so. We don’t use sharp boundaries for our categories in distinguishing the generations, and we’ve never claimed that knowledge production was entirely ignored before 1999. We just think it wasn’t a primary focus. During and after 1999 on the other hand, it seemed to us that more and more practitioners recognized that making knowledge was a primary concern of KM, and that situation, the second generation of KM has remained to this day.

Cynefin Alternatives?

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.” My thought on this issue is that it depends on what one means by an “approach,” and also on what one means by “understanding.” If by this, Dave means that one ought to have an understanding of the state of an organizational system before one decides on one’s approach for enhancing knowledge processing, I certainly agree. But if we are to do that then we must have a framework that allows us to describe the state of the system. Dave seems to use the simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic systems framework to decide on what state the system is in, and that again raises the question of the validity of that conceptual framework. Earlier, I pointed out that I had developed an alternative systems framework, and I’m sure that many other alternatives could easily be developed. This is not the place to discuss alternative frameworks for describing the state of organizational systems. But perhaps it is the place to point out that the Cynefin framework has received very little testing against alternative frameworks of change in organizational phase space, and that it can hardly receive any such testing without further development of it to specify the nature of the phase space by defining its coordinate axes.

 

We Know More Than We Can Tell and We Tell More than We Can Know

 

Dave said: “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.” I agree with this statement and certainly encourage Dave’s efforts to develop narrative-related methods both in gathering and analyzing data and content. In addition, however, I also think it’s important to continue to emphasize developing explicit theories, and models, because these are very powerful too.

What’s often not pointed out about “objective knowledge” is that in an important sense, it is, in Bartley’s words, “unfathomed knowledge.” In saying this he was pointing to the well-known idea that the logical content of any non-trivial knowledge claim is open-ended. New logical consequences of any of our theories or models may appear at any time, and we cannot know, in general, what those consequences will be. Neither Newton nor Einstein understood the logical consequences of their theories. Nor does Dave know very much about what logically follows from a commitment to the propositions of Cynefin. It may well be true, as Polanyi said, that: “we know more than we can tell.” But it is just as true that in stating and committing ourselves to a knowledge claim, we also tell more than we can know. So there is mystery in both tacit and explicit knowledge, and if we want to increase our understanding, we need to explore both.

The Fault Line

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.”

This analysis of what Mark and I said is really a bit mixed up. What we said is that the fault line between the first and second generations of KM was that first generation was focused on knowledge integration, while second generation added a focus on knowledge production. The distinction between Knowledge Management and Knowledge Processing is also extremely important because without it, practitioners confuse the scope of KM and become involved in activities that are either knowledge processing or business processing, rather than KM. However, this second distinction is not the basis for our conception of second generation KM.

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