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Knowledge Management: Beyond the Fa-la-la-la-la

Ted Lumley

As we move through the 1997 Christmas season into a deepening 'knowledge economy', the defining issues of 'knowledge management' seem only weakly resolved. But in the distance, beyond the foreground blur of 'what is KM?', a towering range of "whys" is increasingly visible.

In science, a hundred years of paradigm-shattering discovery has unleashed a tsunami of perceptual revisioning which is just now shivering the timbers of business. Where we once saw structure as giving birth to process, we now see persuasive evidence that the reverse arrangement better approximates nature. Not just one but many thousand-year pillars of western 'world-view' have been collapsing in the wake of discoveries of Henri Poincare (deterministic chaos), Hermann Minkowski (non-independence of space and time), Albert Einstein (curved space-time and relativity), Werner Heisenberg (the indeterminacy of 'things' versus motive energy), Kurt Goedel (the incompleteness of logical and mathematical argument) and Ilya Prigogine (dissipative structures, time as an irreversible 'arrow').

1. The emergence of knowledge management seems related to the new ways of perceiving and inquiring into 'systems', as induced by major scientific discoveries.

The science of complexity would now have it that process and geometry, or ... 'flow' ... is the mother of all structure rather than vice versa. Meanwhile, our view of how to organize and run businesses and other social institutions has been built on the reverse supposition, and we are now faced with overcoming a deep psychological dependency on the primacy of organizational structures and the iconic roles and scripts which emanate from them. That is, our traditional world-view has been based on causal agents and structures whose interactions on a Euclidean playing field give rise to reality as we know it; ... it is no small task to climb out of our protective role-play and re-invent reality in terms of the floating, morphing dispersed process datums of modern science. In fact, we have put so much effort into refining and clarifying roles, scripts and props that we have all but convinced ourselves of the intrinsic absoluteness of this Shakespearian rendering of reality, making it far more difficult to 'own up' to its culturally 'manufactured' origins.

2. Knowledge management, by accommodating science's new fluid datum for perceiving and dealing with systems, extends management capabilities which were heretofore limited by their stable structure and procedure oriented base.

The experience of most organizations is that a 'trigger' or emergency of some type is required to break the illusion and sense of security which ties people to this 'exo-structure' model (wherein causal agents and structures spawn processes), and to grow the mutual trust and confidence essential to the 'endo-structure' model (wherein processes spawn causal agents and structures). This inversion of structure and process, which tends to turn our stomachs inside out as it bares our butts, is typically experienced by teams as they morph from 'normal role-playing' mode into high performance 'evolutionary' mode - a familiar example being the Apollo 13 team who back-benched a highly structured inquiry approach in favour of a trust and flow-based inquiry approach, when an explosion in the command module threatened the lives of three team members.

3. Organizations have to 'gut up' to implement knowledge management as a mainstay of the business; without some kind of trigger, KM is likely to remain relegated to minor structural support roles.

What is the likely impact on tortoise and clam-style existences when the driver's seat for engaging with one's surroundings is moved from inside to outside the role-play shell? There is a queasiness which comes with the consciousness of being naked and exposed, but more importantly, the strategic value of remaining ignorant of the needs and capabilities of other stakeholder-players and of clinging to personally scripted role-play in response to environmental perturbations, goes strongly negative. On the upside, the gathering of a sufficiency of knowledge of the intersecting skills and activities of others and the development of 'harmonizing' ability becomes an imperative, to equip one to 'tune in' to and 'go' with the 'flow' while inducing directionality towards an inclusive satisfying of personal, organizational and environmental goals.

4. Engaging with the world on the basis of knowledge management, rather than from the driver's seat of a giant bulldozer, requires the cultivation of new strategic skills.

Seen in the above light, 'knowledge management' and cross-disciplinary educational initiatives may be the 'emergent offspring' of science-induced perceptual revisioning wherein the mother-son relationship of 'structure' and 'process' is undergoing a polarity flip or 'inversion'.

The inferred need for 'flow-based' as opposed to 'structure-based' knowledge management goes a good bit further than precipitating a need for cross-disciplinary education. In the 'systems inquiry' framework (appended) of Erich Jantsch [Austrian physicist and author of 'Design for Evolution', 1975, 'The Self-Organizing Universe', 1980 and other seminal works on the theme of 'complexity'], one needs to consider three distinct levels of system perception and inquiry along with the different types of knowledge which associate with them: i.e. level three, the lowest level, is concerned with analytical or 'objective' knowledge such as we find in disciplinary course work; level two is concerned with the 'subjective' knowledge of roles, scripts and other props (causal agents) which provide the needed model imagery for working on complicated problems/projects, and; level one is concerned with 'evolutionary' or 'ecological' knowledge which informs us on the 'evolutionary consequences' of present actions.

5. As we move from a tradition of managing knowledge primarily within a structured framework towards managing knowledge in a process orientation, we recognize three, not two, types of knowledge management orientations; objective, subjective, and ecological.

As Jantsch points out, in our traditional mode of systems inquiry, we stop at level two; the development and refinement of roles and scripts (e.g. doctor, lawyer, geologist, thief). As we inquire more deeply into process or 'flow', however, our present actions must be driven, not solely by disciplinary scripts and analysis, but by anticipation of the 'evolutionary consequences' of our present actions seen in the macro context of dynamical flow of which we are a part. That is, we must step outside of our disciplinary shells and scripts, seeing them as expedient structures or 'tools' for getting the job done and learn to 'dance', to 'jam' as musicians or to 'skate to where the puck is going to be' in the interests of improving process harmonies so that they might better support our full slate of aspirations/objectives.

6. Managing knowledge in a role-play or scripted sense inhibits the development of organizational harmony; orienting knowledge management to an envisioning of jointly desired evolutionary consequence can induce organizational harmony.

The uppermost or 'evolutionary' level of systems inquiry must certainly be considered in terms of 'knowledge management' requirements, but it is important to note that knowledge in this tier is 'implicit' and concerns 'pattern recognition'. That is, in the lower two systems inquiry levels, objective knowledge is about 'pattern-breaking' while subjective knowledge is about 'pattern-making'. Pattern recognition is not something one can learn through standard linguistic (oral or written) explication; it is the type of knowledge involved in riding a bicycle and it must be learned experientially via real or simulated experience.

7. Pattern recognition, the cognitive capability which allows us to envision evolutionary consequence, yields an 'implicit' form of knowledge which provides a powerful basis for managing even though we can't put it into words.

In a continuing and accelerating flow of innovation, the answers to questions on 'evolutionary consequence' are not to be found in existing 'best practice' knowledge repositories; i.e. if you are the inventor of the refrigerator, you will not be able to query the database and come up with a warning that abandoned refrigerators (lacking internal door handles) are responsible for the deaths of children. The structures we build have their own, often unintended impact (harmonious or dissonant as the case may be) on evolving macro process. While such 'evolutionary consequences' cannot be predicted by objective analysis or by subjective role and script interpretation, they are within reach of our intuitive or 'pattern recognition' skills. We simply need to use our powers of 'divergent' thinking to step outside of our role-play 'shells' where 'convergent' thinking tends to be the 'be-all' and 'end-all', and look down upon ourselves and others in the very act of perturbing the 'flow' (i.e. look down upon ourselves as participants in a multi-stakeholder ecology).

8. Repository knowledge is old knowledge which can contribute to our objective and subjective system inquiries. Knowledge management which speaks to unborn knowledge must facilitate pattern recognition and the prediction of evolutionary consequence.

On second thought, the word 'simply' may be a bit out of place in the above sentence, because we cannot possibly, on our own, absorb the breadth and depth of knowledge necessary to get a good handle on the macro 'flow', and must approach this 'knowledge management' quest by 'covering for each other'. As we regroup outside of our scripted shells (poised to jump back in a flash if the insecurity and embarassment exceeds our tolerance limit), the only 'real time' means of engendering 'flow'- based dance is to observe each other's moves in the act of working (or the simulated act of working) and trust that as we let our harmony-building intent morph our own work moves, others will similarly allow their moves to morph so as to inclusively accommodate the diversity of personal content involved.

9. Knowledge is experienced in a personal way. In order to manage knowledge so that it can contribute in a multivalent sharing environment, it must be massaged so that it jives with others' knowledge. This entails a 'real-time' 'boot strapping' exercise.

The process of engendering 'harmony' out of 'diversity', as seen from a systems perspective, demands a 'boot strapping' approach since observer, observed and experimental vessel are all mutually interfering and none of the three provide a fixed footing from which to launch an iterative solution (i.e. all system components are in a state of flux). That is, successful solutions on the 'evolutionary' systems inquiry level involve mutually supportive transformation on the part of observing players, observed players and the containing environment (ecological stakeholder-players).

10. Mathematically, knowledge management oriented to evolutionary consequence is a 'nonlinear' process whose solutions must be 'boot strapped' on an 'in toto' basis.

The imagery for this new (i.e. rediscovered) world where the natural 'way' is for process to spawn structure rather than vice versa, is NOT one of a stream whose waters grow sluggish as crystal structures (slush) are precipitated en route to the 'final solution' (i.e. a freezing of the stream in its entirety). Instead, the image is one in which the imposed structures actively perturb the flow --- perturbations which we have habitually or preferentially ignored in our analytical and role-playing inquiry modes (e.g. in the film 'Roger and Me' it is clear that GM's CEO Roger Smith would prefer to ignore the evolutionary consequence of GM layoff programs --- the Christmas-eve eviction of families from their Flint, Michigan homes). The perturbations introduced by scripted business actions, such as mergers, acquisitions and downsizings are real perturbations with real 'evolutionary consequences' which must be accounted for and indeed 'managed' if one aspires to a 'design for evolution' approach. While unintended fallout may be good, bad, immoral or indifferent, the point is that systems inquiry is seriously incomplete where evolutionary consequences are ignored or left 'unmanaged'. Jantsch puts it as follows;

"In a nonequilibrium world of self-realizing, self-balancing systems, process and structure become complementary aspects of the same overall order of process, or evolution. As interacting processes define temporary structures - comparable to standing wave patterns in physics - so structures define new processes, which in turn give rise to new temporary structures. Where process carries the momentum of energy unfoldment, structure permits the focusing and acting out of energy. Only a macro view is capable of providing a perspective of history, or evolution of space-time structures; our current microscopic paradigms do not deal with space-time coincidences."
(Erich Jantsch - 1982)

11. Macro process can involve multiple structures, unifying them via harmonic space-time dynamics (viz. the solar system). Micro views drop out historical and evolutionary content.

In sum, there seems to be a few loose threads that we are having to pick up on, in the aftermath of a century of paradigm-breaking scientific discovery. Not the least of these is the issue that; "our current microscopic paradigms do not deal with space-time coincidences.". Johannes Kepler's prescient observations encapsulated this same view in a somewhat different context in his master work 'Harmonium Mundi'; i.e. that the 'multivalent' harmonies of the planets viewed in the macro context of the solar system were more noteworthy than the micro view of planetary motions along their individual orbital trajectories (a micro view perfected by Newton and the differential calculus which excludes historical and evolutionary content by microscoping in on 'instantaneous' behaviour); i.e. in Kepler's words;

"... while the harmony does not adorn the termini, i.e., the single movements, in so far as they are considered in themselves but only in so far as by being taken together and compared with one another, they become the object of some mind ..."
(Johannes Kepler - May 1618).

As the fuzzy engineering and evolutionary computing (neural net etc.) crowds have ascertained and accepted, naturally complex systems involve 'multivalent' interference aka 'space-time coincidences' or 'flow-patterns' whose essence eludes both analytic/objective and subjective/iconocausal inquiry levels. These groups are responding (within the body of their work) by subordinating their structured approaches to multivalent simulations. The 'knowledge management' response to complexity, would appear to embody a geometrically similar response on the part of business; i.e. a response whereby structured or role-play intervention is subordinated to knowledge-based influencing of macro process.

12. Complex systems are multivalent (i.e. involve shared 'orbits') and thus cannot be reduced to structure and procedure. Management of such systems cannot be accomplished on a structured basis, but must be approached on an 'implicit knowledge' basis.

In acting on the need to cultivate adeptness in system inquiry at the 'evolutionary' level, Wittgenstein's lifelong struggle with the 'limitations of language' takes on tangible meaning; i.e. it becomes apparent that the explicatory mode of using language constrains us to dealing with but one issue at a time, 'hexing' our understanding of naturally multivalent (i.e. 'complex') phenomena and obscuring the 'synoptic view' needed to illuminate essential behaviors in complex systems.

13. Our knowledge includes meaningful concepts and thought patterns which are too complex for word-based explication. Multivalent patterns with evolutionary content lose their meaning if partitioned, yet language is a one-issue-at-a-time medium.

To give an example, the multivalent dynamics which give rise to atmospheric disturbances (e.g. hurricanes) can be conveyed far more effectively through the 'macroview' of weather simulations (a view of dynamic 'flow patterns' or 'space-time coincidences') than by analytical language. In fact there is no micro-causal or analytical explanation for complex phenomena such as weather (weather is subject to 'deterministic chaos' which involves dispersed causal influence).

The inadequacy of analytical language in dealing with complex phenomena appears to explain why high performance teams downplay analytical language as a coordinating medium and use language in a 'signalling' mode, along with graphical and other forms of pattern-oriented techniques, to orchestrate the development of a shared, synoptic view; i.e. a view capable of conveying the evolutionary implications of team member and other stakeholder actions. While this may be rationalized as empowerment, it goes beyond the liberating of the individual team member and deals with the key issue of harmonization.

The macro flow oriented view does not limit the viewplane to the organization and its goals, as is the tendency of role oriented views; i.e. the flow oriented view is a natural view which is blind to the abstract boundaries we impose on ourselves (but cannot impose on nature). The point here is that we cannot simulate complex environments in a 'bottom-up' fashion from micro-views derived from a limited assortment of subjective vantage points, nor can we convey complex system behaviors in analytical language. We must instead develop shareable macro views of the dynamical flow patterns, using discursive and non-discursive signals and graphical imagery - all of which is a technical way of saying that predicting evolutionary consequence is an experientially acquired, pattern-recognition based skill, which cannot be explicitly captured or conveyed in words.

14. High performance teams can get into a powerful harmony by orienting themselves to multivalent evolutionary knowledge. Managing the passage to, and maintaining this harmonic state involves implicit signalling rather than explicit instruction.

To sum up, modern science (e.g. 'complexity') would have it that process or 'flow' transcends 'structure'. From a systems' perception and inquiry point of view, this implies that we must think of ourselves, the observer-structure, as BEING the flow; albeit a small part of it (the 'butterfly effect' can significantly leverage individual influence on evolutionary futures). From this multivalent systems' view, our role-play shells take on the aspect of the emperor's new clothes. That is, iconic imagery and scripts, useful as they are, are man-made approximations --- simulations of reality based on them are innately incapable of coping with deterministic chaos and emergent behaviors --- phenomena which have a dominant influence on evolutionary outcomes. For this reason, subjective role-play models are necessarily flawed in their historical allocating of causal credits or blame to culturally manufactured icons and scripts; i.e. the managerial or emperor icon is a culturally invented and scripted role which may conveniently take credit for evolutionary consequence brought about by macro process. The solution to the 'incompleteness' of subjective iconocausal inquiry is to 'manage' or 'navigate' on the basis of macro process based 'knowledge' rather than relying unduly on the knowledge associated with disciplinary 'roles' and 'scripts'.

15. Our mythology conditions us to think that system outcomes are fully 'caused' by structural elements (people, technology, Newtonian matter/force laws etc.) while in reality, multivalent macro processes are dominant contributors to evolutionary outcome.

This being said, the subjective and objective system inquiry approaches are not to be discarded, as Jantsch asserts, they are merely to be relegated to nested support roles. That is, in terms of navigating or 'steering' in a complex flow, one can imagine analytical inquiry as being a 'rudder' which is inset into a larger rudder (subjective role and script based inquiry) which is inset into an even larger rudder (evolutionary flow-pattern inquiry). This three-component 'rudder' has the combined potential to guide us safely by the pitfalls of incompleteness in logical inquiry, the pitfalls of indeterminacy in subjective judgement (good vs. bad, left vs. right etc.) and to keep us on a course which self-orients towards desired evolutionary outcomes by deliberately accounting for the 'evolutionary consequence' of our actions and allowing this view of the future to modulate our present behaviour.

16. Objectivity, subjectivity and evolutionary patterns are three distinct types of knowledge which must be managed conjointly to navigate complexity. They are mutually inclusive rather than 'exclusive' and relate to each other as a nested set.

In our human ontogeny, it is indeed helpful in the early stages to be guided by the objective 'rudder' (i.e. to be guided by 'yes', 'no', 'if you touch that it will hurt', 'this is black', 'this is white' etc.), and in later stages by the subjective 'rudder' (i.e. to be guided by the roles of man, father, husband, american, geologist, etc. with their culturally defined role-play scripts), and ultimately by the 'evolutionary' or 'pattern-recognition' 'rudder' (i.e. where we give ourselves the licence to set the bulk of our scripts aside and 'jam' with what's going on around us, intuiting the rhythms and harmonies and dancing in phase with them). This latter zone is the 'aesthetic zone' in which we, like Kepler, liberate ourselves from micro-analytical and role-play views and use our gift of pattern-recognition, giving ourselves up to a participative experiencing of natural harmonies implicit in 'whole-in-part' geometries whether these be in the form of flowers, music, or seasonal festivities such as those we immerse ourselves in at this time of year.

17. 'To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens.' Knowledge is a many-splendored thing which can be managed to serve a diversity of need.

Grooving on the 'evolutionary' inquiry plane is 'knowledge management' at its finest, and as Scrooge discovered, rising above our carefully crafted business roles and micro-analysis opens the door to a far more rewarding experience in which our personal 'evolutionary process' seeks intimate engagement with the rhythms and harmonies with which we most resonate.

Ted Lumley


A Framework For Examining Organizational High Performance And Dysfunction

(Based on Erich Jantsch's 'THREE LEVELS OF PERCEPTION AND INQUIRY':

  • rational = sitting on bank and watching the flow;
  • mythological = paddling canoe on flow and navigating between bivalent opposites;
  • ecological = 'being' the flow as a water molecule 'is' the river and yet only part of it)

While the systems inquiry practiced by most teams (organizations) is at the lower levels (2 and 3), high performance creative teams approach system perception and inquiry at level one (evolutionary), using the second and third levels in a nested, supportive manner.

Level Of 'Self' Systemic Optimizing Models/ Comm'S Perception Interplay Parameter/ Simulations Medium And Inquiry Ordering Principles

evolutionary 'We' vessel/ harmony- multivalent geometric
ecological eco-centric observer/ discord / nonlinear fractal
pattern - observed tuning-in evolutionary
recognizing intuition

* * * Above Level 'Contains' Next Lower Level As 'Special Case' * * *

mythological 'I' - 'thou' observer/ good/bad bivalent narrative
subjective role-centred observed feeling nonlinear language
pattern- judgement collaborative qualitative making

* * * Above Level 'Contains' Next Lower Level As 'Special Case' * * *

rational 'I' - 'it' none true/false monovalent logical-
objective logic linear proposition
pattern- toggle mechanical quantitative
breaking

Return to I3 UPDATE No. 16


© Copyright, 1998 David Skyrme Associates Limited and Authors - All rights reserved.

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