All Life Is Problem Solving

Joe Firestone’s Blog on Knowledge and Knowledge Management

All Life Is Problem Solving header image 2

Why Don’t We Write More About How We Ought to Evaluate Knowledge Claims?

September 1st, 2008 · No Comments


There’s remarkably little attention given to the discussion of how we ought to evaluate knowledge claims in spite of the fact that this issue is rather central to both knowledge processing and KM. I’ve argued for the importance of KCE in the past. Here I want to illustrate its importance with a critical take on an aspect of some widely known work of Nonaka and Takeuchi. Here’s what their The Knowledge Creating Company, has to say about “justifying concepts” (pp. 86-87):


“In our theory of organizational knowledge creation, knowledge is defined as justified true belief. Therefore, new concepts created by the individual or the team need to be justified at some point in the procedure. Justification involves the process of determining if the newly created concepts are truly worthwhile for the organization and society. It is similar to a screening process. Individuals seem to be justifying or screening information, concepts, or knowledge continuously and unconsciously throughout the entire process. The organization, however, must conduct the justification in a more explicit way to check if the organizational intention is still intact and to ascertain if the concepts being generated meet the needs of society at large. The most appropriate time for the organization to conduct this screening process is right after the concepts have been created.


“For business organizations, the normal justification criteria include cost, profit margin, and the degree to which a product can contribute to the firm’s growth. But justification criteria can be both quantitative and qualitative … More abstract criteria may include value premises such as adventure, romanticism, and aesthetics. Thus, justification criteria need not be strictly objective and factual; they can also be judgmental and value-laden.“


It is striking that “justifying concepts” as a basis for knowledge is about evaluating or screening knowledge claims (statements) in the process of converting them into “tacit” knowledge (beliefs) for the purpose of psychologically justifying them. This is how we interpret the passage above. Though knowledge is characterized as “justified true belief,” the above statement makes very plain that the emphasis is on belief and psychological justification and not on truth at all. Where in “justifying concepts” are the epistemic evaluation criteria for selecting among contending knowledge claim networks? Where is the concern for seeking and finding true knowledge claim networks rather than false ones? Where is the concern with finding solutions to problems that reflect reality?


Upon closer inspection, we find that Nonaka and Takeuchi’s theory of truth is more concerned with the proximity of beliefs and claims to positions held by managers, than with closeness to reality. Consider the following statement of theirs (p. 87):


“In a knowledge-creating company, it is primarily the role of top management to formulate the justification criteria in the form of organizational intention, which is expressed in terms of strategy or vision.”


Earlier (p. 86), they contend that justification of “true beliefs” is measured “against the vision established by top management.” It should be clear, then, that according to Nonaka and Takeuchi, truth has little to do with reality, and instead is a function of how close beliefs or claims happen to come to the beliefs or claims held or expressed by managers – who of course could all be wrong.


The important point is that in considering “justifying concepts” as an “Internalization” process, Nonaka and Takeuchi, and he and his collaborators in other works, as well, have by-passed the process of ‘open’ Knowledge Claim Evaluation, a process that selects among knowledge claims on the basis of their defensible correspondence with reality, and which in the process never refers to, or relies upon, the authority or rank of a claim’s proponents. Instead, Nonaka and Takeuchi seem to prefer a position which states that (a) beliefs or claims being transferred or “converted” in their SECI model are always true, (b) that a political/ psychological process seeking certainty in beliefs or claims is valid, and (c) commitment to those beliefs or claims on the basis of the rank of their originators is a preferred and sufficient basis for the justification they seek.


Such a process may build consensus and commitment; it may produce justification of one’s beliefs. But, it does not produce severe tests and evaluations for alternative knowledge claims. It does not produce the strongest solutions to our problems. It does not produce the growth of knowledge. And finally, it does not eliminate our bad ideas before they eliminate us. In short, it is not a recipe for creating knowledge that will more closely approach the truth. Instead, it is a recipe for creating comfortable knowledge claim networks that we can all agree upon, whether or not these are the best networks for helping us to adapt to the challenges we will surely face.


In future posts, I’ll return to the topic of Knowledge Claim Evaluation and will raise the issue of whether we can or need to justify our knowledge claims or statements at all.

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