Re: Knowledge Theory

From: Mark W. McElroy (
Date: Wed Nov 22 2000 - 12:53:37 PST

John Maloney wrote:

> Rod,
> Thanks for copying me on this exchange. I have followed it with interest.
> Mark, you've done a nice job of capturing and leading a lot of the thought
> in this area.

Thank you.

> While I don't have a problem with the principles in general, I think it is
> only fair to state some of the predicates of the "knowledge theory."
> If the 'knowledge theory' is simply an academic exercise or ontology, then
> fine.
> However, from my review it seems as if there is a belief or predicate in the
> large-scale, unbounded, and mechanized production of useful knowledge. This
> is a false & dangerous presupposition.

I agree, althought there's nothing mechanized about the KMCI model or my own
ideas, so far as I know. In fact, we've tried very hard to stay away from such
reductionism and have placed our bets, instead, on the existence of knowledge
nonlinearities, if you will, in human social systems. Still, the fact that we
base our thinking on the view that there are knowledge life cycles in play does
not equate to mechanistic thinking. Even wildly unpredictable and emergent
systems can be characterized by such cycles. In complexity science they're
called "strange attractors."

> Michael Porter defines "innovation" simply as productivity growth. Indeed,
> the lifecycle approach, systems thinking, quality management, Collective IQ,
> etc., are all proven mechanisms to advance productivity and productivity
> growth (innovation).

Productivity is an economic term invented long after living systems were
"innovating," last time I checked. If that's Porter's notion of innovation then
I disagree with him. If it's only productivity we're all after, then we might
as well forget about sustainability because the former is often achieved at the
expense of the latter. I'm not interested in the econometric bias to knowledge
and innovation if its only about productivity.

> The refinement and continuous pursuit of these methods is honorable and
> valuable.
> The danger is these methods are linear and deterministic.

Or "can be" linear and mechanistic.

> True creativity is neither. In fact, structured, robotic, 'production'
> settings as described, most often stifle randomness, chaos, agility and the
> true context of creativity. Complexity science & OL simply do not provide an
> adequate explanation or methodology for the highly erratic and capricious
> nature of dazzling originality and spectacular invention.

Well I guess we disagree there. First, the explanation you say is missing from
complexity theiry is precisely the one that I think complexity theory offers.
CAS theory, in particular, is nothing if not a theory on how capricious,
unpredictable and ninlinear learning happens in living systems. That's its
jaw-dropping beauty. As for OL, I would tend to agree with you there. In fact,
I have argued that practitioners of OL should spend more time thinking about CAS
theory as a source of inspiration for understanding HOW organizations learn.

> Today, most business activity and thinking is still concerned with linear
> mechanical habit. Thus, these "production" offerings have an important place
> in today's lexicon and toolkit.
> However, new wealth-producing processes require a much higher degree of
> individual intellectual & creative effort. In this environment, knowledge
> management must strive to enhance & expand zones of collaboration, sharing,
> learning, play, context, content, expression and community for individuals.
> It does not involve rigid, cybernetic processes of identification,
> codification, control, production and maximization, for example. The KM
> pursuit is an environment of effortless sharing and unconscious
> collaboration. The objective is to maximize the efficiencies & effectiveness
> of mental concentration, cognition and imagination, not "production" of
> knowledge.

Yes. I agree with all of that. In fact, I declared that view as comprising a
"second generation" of thinking on KM in a paper published a year ago in KM
magazine, and which is freely available on my website.

> In the future, "knowledge theory" will be quite simply and directly about
> the state of knowing. It will have less and less to do with control,
> systems, production, processes, mechanics or methodologies.


> Another example is agriculture. By far, the vast majority of the earth's
> population concerns themselves from dawn 'til dusk with producing foodstuff.
> We don't. Because of this, and the extremely low probability that I will
> starve, allows me to write this message. You'll agree that our society has
> totally mastered the production of food.

Well, I would agree that we have totally mastered the practice of unsustainable
food production, yes. Thank you for substantiating the distinction I made in my
Porter comment above.

> We never think about the production
> of food. It is the envy of the world. Yet, >60% of Americans are morbidly
> obese. This excess accounts for the vast 'disease care' system that could
> bankrupt our economy. 800,000 Americans die prematurely each -year- because
> of obesity. If this was by war or by accident, it would be a national
> catastrophe. These are just examples of the side effects of a "production"
> system that has run amok. Close parallels can be drawn to this dysfunctional
> production process and enterprise excess of "knowledge production." Quite
> honestly, it is more important to create meaning than to "produce
> knowledge." More companies suffer from knowledge indigestion than
> starvation. A "production" system exacerbates this problem.

Exactly. All of which adds up to my general idictment of industry as
practitioners of unsustainable innovation on a massive scale. I argue that not
only are businesses subject to measures of sustainability, but so are their
innovation processes and practices, as well.

> Look at how lean, lightning-fast start-ups whip their far larger competition
> mostly because they enjoy an open, fast moving culture of close
> collaboration, urgency, *customers* and collective goal seeking, for
> example. Knowledge production isn't on their radar.

Agreed. They practice "first generation, supply-side KM." Very shallow.

> Anyway, thanks again for this message and this important work, research and
> thought. It is a real contribution. As this work evolves, the following 1945
> quote from the great Nobel Laureate economist Friedrich August Von Hayek is
> even more prescient:
> "Every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses
> unique information of which beneficial use might be made only if the
> decisions depending on it are left to him."
> It is from "The Use of Knowledge in Society," which I recommend.

Thanks, John, for the feedback and pleasant dialogue.



> Cheers,
> John
> -----Original Message-----
> Sent: Saturday, November 18, 2000 7:45 AM
> To: Rod Welch
> Cc:;; Maloney, John T.
> Subject: Re: Knowledge Theory
> Rod:
> My name is Mark W. McElroy. I'm Chairman of the KMCI Institute's Governing
> Council
> (its board). Thank you for your response to our broadcast announcement.
> Please see
> my comments below in response to your queries.
> Rod Welch wrote:
> > It appears that KMCI's curriculum can provide guidance. Has KMCI settled
> on a
> > definition that distinguishes knowledge from information, and can you
> suggest an
> > example of work being done that illustrates this idea? This comes up
> because
> > ontology is thought by some to be a distinguishing feature of KM. Some
> people
> > call this categories or subjects, and some speak of an evolutionary
> > epistemology, while others point to the idea of taxonomy.
> Rod, a core team of KMCI principals, myself included, developed an
> ontological model
> of knowledge over a year ago. Since then we have enhanced it slightly, but
> its
> composition and use have changed little. We refer to it as the KMCI
> knowledge life
> cycle model, or KLC model. You can obtain a copy of this model at my own
> website at
> the following URL:
> In general, the KMCI perspective on knowledge versus information is deeply
> rooted in
> the KLC model and hinges heavily on the notion of validation as performed by
> self-organized communities of knowledge (aka, communities of interest,
> practice,
> etc.). Knowledge by our definition is information that has been validated
> by a
> social system; information, on the other hand, is invalidated and can be
> thought of
> as "knowledge claims" only -- potential knowledge -- but not knowledge, per
> se.
> Knowledge is also, therefore, relative to its holders. Knowledge to me may
> only be
> information to you, because I've validated it but you haven't.
> Organizational
> knowledge evolves in the same fashion. This is where communities of
> knowledge come
> into play. Communities create new knowledge and serve as the validating
> intermediaries between individually-held knowledge and organizationally-held
> knowledge. This is why communities play such an important role in our KLC
> (we call
> them "groups").
> As for work being done in this area, there's lots of it. First of all, our
> perspective is strongly aligned with attempts to aplly systems thinking to
> organizational learning, including Peter Senge's efforts, and the separate
> but
> related work being done in the complexity science arena (i.e., complex
> adpaptive
> systems theory). For example, in my case I have been developing a
> methodology
> designed to enhance organizational knowledge production using principles
> taken from
> the KMLC model and complexity theory. This includes construction of an
> on-line
> simulator developed using system dynamics tools from High Performance
> Systems and
> which, again, can be found on my website:
> I would also point to all of
> the work
> being done my may others in the community building arena such as Etienne
> Wenger and
> others.
> > On 000113 I asked the president of KMCI, Ed Swanstrom, about these
> matters, and
> > he indicated that KMCI is working hard to formalize KM, but has not yet
> > resolved the foundational matters that Doug's DKR team is addressing....
> >
> >
> >
> > Doubtless, KMCI has made a lot of progress since last January. Will all
> this be
> > covered in the course you are offering that explains a theory of
> knowledge?
> Yes, that is our intent. It's all bundled under the heading of "2nd
> generation KM."
> > Any help is greatly appreciated. By copy, I am alerting the OHS/DKR team
> about
> > your important work, and look forward to hearing from you.
> Thank you, Rod.
> Regards,
> Mark

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