Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Some ramblings on knowledge, information, thermodynamics and Taoism – Part 2


There is no shortage of frameworks and models attempting to explain how knowledge is generated, transferred and applied in an organizational context. One of the first, already mentioned in Part 1, is the SECI model of Nonaka and Takeuchi. Other notable attempts include Probst's Building Blocks of Knowledge Management, Boisot's I-Space and Kurtz & Snowden's Cynefin Model. While all of them share some common ground, each of them focuses on a different aspect of what, IMHO, is the same, complex problem.

The Thermodynamic Metaphor


Another framework which does not seem to have achieved much exposure yet is that which claims that the behaviour of data, information and knowledge is analogous to that of matter, fuel and energy as described by thermodynamics. I made reference to Crofts in Part 1, but another paper was published early in 2007 which draws the analogy at the everyday physical level, rather than the biological level. Leburn Rose's paper, entitled Thermodynamics and knowledge: principles and implications is actually a chapter in a book: Knowledge Management: Social, Cultural and Theoretical Perspectives.

Rose suggests that data are like molecules of matter; there is no purposive structure, no properties we have selected to infer meaning. Information however, is data with structure and purpose, analogous to molecules bound into certain structures we call fuel, with the potential to produce energy. It follows, Rose says, that "as energy results from the chemical combustion of fuel, likewise, knowledge could also be the psychosocial processing of information in a form that achieves added value."


I find this analogy somewhat strained at this point, but let's bear with it because it gets more interesting. The author goes on to discuss the three classic modes of energy transfer - conduction, convection and radiation - and says "The three modes of energy transfer provide important insights regarding the transfer of knowledge through the objects, physical spaces and processes in organisations."

After introducing combustion as a metaphor for knowledge creation, the author then proposes a schema for knowledge creation in organizations, which describes how the two archetypal knowledge states - explicit and tacit - are each susceptible to transfer through different processes analogous to energy transfer processes. The schema employs two axes, 'Knowledge Form' (explicit/tacit) and 'Organisational Architecture' (organic/rigid), which result in quadrants representing:
  • 'tacit-organic' transfer via radiation
  • 'tacit-rigid' transfer via convection
  • 'explicit-organic' creation via combustion
  • 'explicit-rigid' transfer via conduction
Any one organization's 'knowledge space' will be likely to include all four knowledge processes to differing degrees depending upon its nature and purpose. Rose cites the example of a manufacturing firm, which can be characterised as having a 'knowledge form' which is explicit-dominant and an organisational architecture which is rigid-dominant. This does for the corporate knowledge portfolio what the ubiquitous Boston Consulting Group box does for the product portfolio (cash cows etc.).

Whatever its approximations and incongruities, this fresh metaphorical perspective seems to me to offer the opportunity for a qualitatively different and more penetrating analysis of how knowledge works in organizations. Not least, it provides a starting point for examining the nature of knowledge communities which emerge as organic rather than rigid, and dealing with a combination of explicit and tacit knowledge forms, mainly perhaps the latter.

The Experientialist-Existentialist-Taoist Axis

It should be quite apparent that I am not so much concerned with knowledge per se, in the epistemological sense of the Wittgensteins and Poppers of this world, but rather with situated knowledge - the issues surrounding knowledge and information and their value in a socioeconomic context. Even if you're a Wittgensteinian or Popperian, see the excellent book by Lucas Introna, Management, Information and Power (Macmillan, 1997. ISBN 0-333-69870-3) for an existentialist treatment of these issues.

Although poiesis and praxis are not always easily distinguishable in the fray of endeavour, in quieter moments the Western mind tends to want to make clear distinctions between the objects and phenomena it perceives (taxonomists take note!). On the other hand, every Taoist knows that things are connected in ways often too subtle to apprehend and that out of apparent chaos order can emerge. The fact that Heraclitus and Lao Tzu both knew this in the 6th century BC, and that complexity theory is only now re-discovering it, fascinates me. Mind you, Lao Tzu also said "People are difficult to govern because they have too much knowledge", which might be the ancient Chinese obverse of Clay Shirky's cognitive surplus. Hmmm...

Why do we feel we need to treat knowledge and information as separate things? Just because they have different attributes? Ice, liquid water, steam and water vapour have different attributes, but they are all H2O (back to thermodynamics again!). For me, knowledge and information are distinguishable but inseparable. Neither can have any value without the other - yin and yang (see the Taijitu of Zhou Dun-yi above). Only when they interact can value be generated, and then only in the context of purposeful action.

The whole essence of knowledge is to enable purposeful action, which is the source of its value, and purposeful action requires both the tacit (knowledge) and the explicit (information) phases to interact and be transformed one into the other. Whenever I use the term 'knowledge', it relates not to an object but to this dynamic transformation process - tacit-to-explicit and back again - in a true autopoietic sense, where meaning is continually being negotiated and re-negotiated. Karl Weick calls it 'sense-making' (so does Dave Snowden, so that bodes well) and Introna describes it lucidly under the label of 'hermeneutics'.

3 comments:

Conrad said...

It seems to me that Leburn Rose’s account of the relationship between data and information is one that is commonly given, but is wrong. Data is regarded as being a kind of lower form, which become information when it is placed in a context. But if I measure the height of a table, the amount of money in a bank account or the temperature of a patient, the numbers I get back were sampled within a particular context already, and for a particular purpose. If I then enter that data into a database, it retains the context provided that it retains its relationship with the database metadata that describes the purpose of the field and the units in which the measurement is stored. Data can therefore be seen to be a transformation of information taken from the real world, into a form that is more easily processed and communicated, particularly with the help of machines.

I’m still struggling to understand how Rose’s far-fetched analogy adds anything to our understanding of the relationships between data, information and knowledge, but maybe that is because I don’t have access to the text.

Conrad said...

Sense-making — My awareness of this concept comes from discussions within the Information Design community, and is associated in my mind with the person of Brenda Dervin, professor of communication at Ohio State University, whose writings on this subject pre-date Weick’s, as far as I can tell, starting circa 1972. Brenda contributed a chapter to Robert Jacobson’s Information Design (1999; ISBN 0-262-10069-X).

Jack said...

i agree with @conrad
I’m still struggling the relationships between data, information and knowledge