Editor's Note (2.3)

Dr Michael Lissack


This can be regarded as the first “knowledge” issue of Emergence. All of the articles in this issue relate in some manner to knowledge and how it is conceived of, managed, and abused in organizations. The emphasis on knowledge takes its lead from our first article, a summary of a dialogue that ensued at a recent meeting of the Academy of Management (the professional organization of business school professors) around doing research. The question on the table was: Why do we do research in the organization sciences and what good comes of it? This is exploring knowledge at the academic level, but the challenge faced by the discussants is that perhaps what is being explored is nonsense not knowledge. This tension between the “knowledge” of research of consultants and of journalists and the practical knowledge of managers becomes the focus of the remaining articles.

John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid wrote several years ago:

New knowledge often requires new forms of evaluation, and when the two are produced together, knowledge, belief, and evaluation may only reinforce one another, while evaluation independent of that belief appears irrelevant. Individual and collective knowledge in this context bear on one another much like the parts of individual performers to a complete musical score, the lines of each actor to a movie script, or the roles of team members to the overall performance of a team and a game. Each player may know his or her part. But on its own, that part doesn't make much sense. Alone it is significantly incomplete: it requires the ensemble to make sense of it. By yoking diverse communities with different belief systems and distinct evaluative practices together into cohesive hybrids, organizations as a whole challenge the limits of each community's belief. This process generates knowledge through “productive tension” or “creative abrasion,” forcing particular communities beyond their own limits and their own evaluative criteria.

In other work I have argued that the tension relates to a lack of coherence about what knowledge is and how it is used. Being coherent means acting in a manner that reinforces who you are, as an organization, given the current environment. It is such coherence that “makes sense” to us and to the others around us. To quote Brown and Duguid again:

Firms, when they get to the point they are so loosely connected that there is no synthesis or synergy of what is produced in their various communities—when, there is no “coherence”—then a firm has indeed lost its edge over the market.

About knowledge, the business world is not coherent, and the blame is often placed on complexity. Jay Forrester has noted:

While most people understand first-order effects, few deal well with second- and third-order effects. Unfortunately, virtually everything interesting in business lies in fourth-order effects and beyond.

The lack of coherence lies in the impacts of these fourth-order effects. And what we do not understand we tell stories about. We tell many stories about knowledge.

Stories speak to both parts of the human mind—its reason and emotion. Stories provide a medium of communication, both internally within an organization and externally to customers, potential customers, business partners, business rivals, investors, and others. Stories provide a tool for conceptualizing and identifying challenges and opportunities.

Stories are evocative systems of patterns. As pattern systems, stories reveal patterns and bring to the surface valuable information that might otherwise go unnoticed, and unharvested. This issue is but a first attempt to bring forth such stories.

After the Academy dialogue we turn to the posthumous views of Uri Merry who, until his untimely death last year, was a prolific commentator on the relation between complexity, organizations, knowledge, and stories. His article, “The Information Age, New Science and Organizations,” argues that it was not chance that both the New Science and the Information Age appeared on the world scene at approximately the same time:

Both were born out of the same technological development, they affect one another, and are co-emergent. With regard to organizations, their relationship takes this form: the Information Age has intensified a set of complex problems for organizations and other human systems. The New Science applied to organizations is an attempt to deal with those problems. The New Science has the characteristics needed to begin to approach the complex adaptive problems facing organizations in the Information Age.

We are grateful to Uri's son Nir for permission to print his father's article. Paul Cilliers continues this commentary in his article on “Rules and Complex Systems.” He emphasizes that we at present only have the tools with which, as Merry puts it, to begin to approach those complex adaptive problems. More specifically, Cilliers notes,

a rule-based approach is not adequate when we want to model complex systems … patterns of all kinds are possible in a complex system, from the stable to the ephemeral and everything in between. We have no a priori method able to provide a guarantee that we are dealing with an aspect of the system that is stable, and likely to remain so … The patterns of structure in a complex system are messy. Their borders are not clearly defined. They overlap and interpenetrate each other. If a complex system is critically organized, it will also have structural components on all scales of magnitude, and will therefore be maximally sensitive to influences that can change its structure.

Alexander Styhre, Anders Ingelgård, and Jonas Roth illustrate this point with their case study, “A Nonreductionist View of Knowledge: Product Development in the Pharmaceutical Industry.” They caution,

Our case study conducted in a major pharmaceutical company illustrates the need to combine expert knowledge with other forms of knowledge that can enable the conversion of theoretical knowledge into organizational activities. Knowledge must be seen as a texture or, better still, as one texture within the broad organizational texture consisting of the totality of organizational activities.

Styhre et al. use their non-reductionist, holistic view on knowledge management to examine the knowledge of action in organizations. Duska Rosenberg and Tony Holden continue the argument with their article, “Interactions, Technology, and Organizational Change.” They note,

It is not easy to predict how people will use new computerized services, how new technology will affect established working practices, how user “alienation” can be avoided, or how we can assess the likely cost-benefit of introducing new technology. One possible reason for this is that managers, designers, and developers underestimate the complexity of the social and organizational environment where technology will be used.

Rosenberg and Holden go on to discuss the implications for such under-estimates regarding complexity, and tie the notions of knowledge and complexity together in a very pragmatic way.

Your editor then chimes in, in an article entitled “Knowledge Management Redux: Reframing A Consulting Fad Into a Practical Tool.” Lissack writes,

Knowledge management is something more than just a label for selling fancy computer systems to large organizations. Unfortunately, there exist too many consultants and software firms who misuse the label for just such selling. Yet, the need for tools that enable better access to “what, who, and how much” one needs to know has never been greater. If complexity theory is about anything, it is about developing an understanding of boundaries, constraints, and possibilities inherent in the interactions of large numbers of autonomous and semi-autonomous agents. Modern corporations are perhaps the exemplar here—and they cry out for practical knowledge management. The purpose of this article is to outline an approach to knowledge management, which is more than “selling computers,” and which puts the users ahead of the consultants.

Mark McElroy continues this notion in his “Second-Generation KM: A White Paper.” McElroy writes,

knowledge management as a whole: “an idea that amounts to little more than yesterday's information technologies trotted out in today's more fashionable clothes.” Point well taken.

Indeed, at the heart of most KM strategies to date can be found data warehousing, groupware, document management, imaging, and data mining. By continuing to promote that kind of narrow, technology-centric brand of thinking, the nascent field of knowledge management places its own credibility at risk. Merely relabeling yesterday's technologies with the sexy new name of today's KM brings nothing new to the table—and customers won't stand for it. Evidence of the backlash is already apparent. We, the community of KM practitioners, can do much better than that.

In the article, McElroy expounds on his approach to doing “better than that.”

Finally, Adam Pearson, in his “Knowing the Unmanageable: A Short Discourse,” tells the story of the change in his management process and style over the last five years—a story marked by practical considerations of knowledge and knowledge management as they interact with the people about him. Out in the world at large, two items are worthy of particular note. First, Johan Roos, Lego, and the MIT Media Lab have joined together to form a unique collaborative venture, the Imagination Lab (see http://www.imagilab.org

Second, with a similar aim, the Rand Corporation recently held a twoday conference on the intersection of complexity thinking and public policy making. While the conference exposed the large gap in present thinking between “modelers” and decision makers, it went a long way toward getting both camps to initiate dialogue. We welcome the attendees of that conference as Emergence subscribers, and are pleased to announce that an edited transcript of the event will be published as a special issue of the journal in the middle of next year.

This issue marks the beginning of a two-issue series devoted to knowledge management. We continue with a special issue edited by Yasmin Merali of Warwick and Dave Snowden of IBM's Institute of Knowledge Management. Stay tuned!