All Life Is Problem Solving

Joe Firestone’s Blog on Knowledge and Knowledge Management

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The Empire Need Not Repeat

August 7th, 2008 · 2 Comments


In a recent post entitled “The Emperor’s Chess Board: Pt 1”, Dave challenged “the concept of centralisation of a government knowledge function (I will qualify this a bit in a future post), arguing that it would manifestly lead to failure to achieve the key goals of making a nation more secure.”

Before I consider Dave’s primary argument, I want to point out two assumptions that I think pervade the above post, as well as two others Dave posted on this theme, at the time of this writing. First, I think Dave assumes that the government knowledge function and the government KM function are one and the same. I don’t agree. The knowledge function covers the activities of problem seeking, problem recognition, and problem formulation, making discovering, creating, and/or producing new knowledge, and integrating both new and old knowledge. These activities occur all over Government; they always will; and no one is proposing centralizing them.

Second, I also think that Dave is assuming that any kind of central organizing function for knowledge processing in National Governments is inimical to self-organization and adaptiveness in Government, and he seems to continually contrast stifling centralization with the autonomy and creativity of self-organization. I don’t agree with this sort of dichotomy. I think it’s possible to have central organizations that facilitate self-organization and distributed knowledge processing. And I also think that having such institutions in Government, and especially in KM are both necessary and possible for the further development of Democracy.

Dave’s primary argument that a centralized KM function will lead to failures in national security is based on the idea that the justification of such a function is a) past failures have resulted from the fact that we have not been able to “connect the dots”; b) to connect the dots we need to have “bigger and bigger databases, with more search algorithms,” centralized functions, standardized procedures, and a KM Czar, and c) these measures will ensure that no future errors will occur. He reasons, correctly, that there is a numbers, or unmanageable combinatorial, explosion problem here that makes it impossible to connect all dots, and then ends with an effective rhetorical flourish, especially in the context of National Governmental KM in the United States:

How many dots are there in a human system? How many possible patterns? OK hindsight is a wonderful thing as the significant dots and the linkages are now visible, but in respect of foresight? Forget it. Remember Lincoln? He said in his second annual message to Congress in 1862 As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country. Never a truer word more greatly ignored in government and most certainly ignored by those presenting the same old tired solutions of centralised knowledge management?”

I agree with this conclusion of Dave’s, and I supported it in an actkm post at a number of points and especially with these words:

“The most serious failure of KM in Government is not the failure of “information integration,” though I don’t mean to minimize the seriousness of that failure; but the more serious failure is the failure to create an ecology of rationality throughout our national governments that enables us “think anew and act anew.” That is the real generalized solution to the “connecting the dots” problem. For the problem of “connecting the dots,” is not the mechanical one of generating all the possible patterns that arise from a series of data nodes. Rather, it is the problem of being able to invent new theories and rise above and beyond the mere data represented by the dots, or the patterns that we impose on those dots with algorithms of one sort or another. No doubt that such analyses and such algorithms can help us in analysis, but ultimately the patterns we arrive at are our conjectures and they are theoretical constructs that go beyond the data.

“So, we have to learn about and implement the kind of ecology that can best enable our knowledge workers to arrive at such theoretical constructs more effectively and to evaluate and select among them more effectively. This is the most important task of KM, and I think it is the biggest failure of KM in our National Governments.”

However, even though I agree with Dave’s argument about the impossibility of “connecting the dots,” with brute force database and search methods, I don’t think this is an effective argument against the idea that there should be a National KM Center. There is an entirely different argument for a National KM Center than the one Dave criticized in his “Empire” posts. It is outlined here, here, and here. And it is based on the idea that a National KM Center organized in the way I proposed, would enable decentralized Knowledge Management, support distributed problem solving, self-organization, and “connecting the dots,” by producing an ecology that facilitates creating new ideas that both interpret “the dots and their connections” in new ways that are closer to the truth, and also go above and beyond them to provide at least the kind of foresight that it is possible to achieve in human complex systems.

Such a Center would enable and support KM throughout the Government, enhance its adaptiveness through the impact of better KM on knowledge processing, while also making it accountable to legislative fiduciaries. And its operation would have nothing to do with the idea of “connecting the dots” by using the brute force approach Dave has argued against.

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

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 snowded // Aug 7, 2008 at 4:37 pm

    I haven’t finished the arguments yet Joe, at least two more posts to go

  • 2 Joe // Aug 7, 2008 at 5:02 pm

    I figured. But the third post seemed worth answering, and a little extra fodder shouldn’t hurt.