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'.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Some ramblings on knowledge, information, thermodynamics and Taoism – Part 1

Conrad Taylor, Project Officer at the BCS KIDMM community and friend of ISKO UK has written a paper Towards making knowledge in communities, which is designed to lay the foundations for an exploration of the topic of ‘knowledge communities’ at a joint KIDMM-ISKOUK event in October 2008. The paper masterfully blends, links and questions the currently predominant memes concerning knowledge and its manifestations, the relationship between information and knowledge, and the role which communities play in the exchange and generation of knowledge.

Why should ISKO UK be interested in such a topic? Well, I have no doubt that knowledge is socially constructed. It might appear to be generated solely by individuals like the Einsteins and Edisons of this world, but it inevitably draws upon the work of others, and to become accepted as ‘justified true belief’, to be propagated and to be put to good use, it must be validated through peer review and put to the test in a social context. All of these processes, from initial conceptualization, through research, validation, testing and exploitation are mediated and facilitated by access to knowledge and information – access which is made possible because geeks like us bother to develop and apply the means of doing so.

At a recent meeting organized by NetIKX which Conrad mentions, he raised a number of points which challenged some of the slick memes propagated by KM consultants and gurus (for an amusing insight into this phenomenon, see Prof. Tom Wilson's infamous guerrilla attack on KM), and which stimulated my own thinking about the issues involved. For example, take the common compound noun ‘knowledge object’. Your understanding of this depends upon your acceptance of the notion that knowledge can be a ‘thing’, i.e. a tangible object. Our current conventional wisdom is thoroughly ambivalent on this, largely owing to popular acceptance of Nonaka and Takeuchi’s mid-1990s description of ‘tacit knowledge’ and ‘explicit knowledge’ and their SECI (Socialization, Externalization, Combination, Internalization) model of how one is transmuted into the other.

It’s not that Nonaka & Takeuchi’s description was invalid; it represented a giant leap forward in our understanding of how knowledge is transferred, absorbed, aggregated and embedded in the social psyche. But their presentation of ‘knowledge’ in tacit and explicit forms hooked-in to our Western way of black-or-white thinking (you’re either with us or against us...) to fool us into assuming that they were separate and separable concepts. They are not.

I have had conversations many times before on this topic. The most recent and most interesting was with a colleague, Christopher Dean, who deals with knowledge and change issues at Airbus in Bristol. He makes reference to a rather interesting (although dense) paper by Crofts which theorizes about knowledge and information in thermodynamic terms and links them with Darwinism and the development of phenotypes and of civilization itself. I am sure my colleague won’t mind if I quote him briefly here, since he makes his points far better than I ever could.
“This paper by Crofts provides a theoretically sound basis to distinguish knowledge without substance from information embodied in the structure of a thermodynamic carrier. As you suggest, knowledge and information are both distinct yet inseparable. However, for me this drives a stake through the notions of explicit knowledge and collective knowledge. Explicit information certainly, but knowledge - no.”

“To illustrate: an author translates meaning into physical acts, such as writing or typing, to produce an explicit record. A (symbolic) representation of that meaning is externalised and stored & transmitted for future reference by the author and others. Reading that recorded representation demands translation and interpretation to reproduce the original meaning. What's important about this sequence is that the knowledge enacted by the author through writing, the storage & transmission medium, and the reader are parts of a thermodynamic system that propagates meaning from one mind to another's mind. Hence, knowledge only exists in the mind of each individual. The word "communicate" literally means "to make common", that is to reproduce the same sense of meaning in another person's mind.”
Why is this significant to Conrad’s theme? Well, because Conrad’s paper and the quotation above are both concerned with the same issues, like ‘explicit knowledge’ actually being ‘information’, and the role of ‘information objects’ as a transmission medium. And by extension, because to ‘make knowledge in communities’, knowledge has to be transferred as information (or information objects?) through some kind of medium. The medium can be one (or several) of many possible types, and may itself be carried by different kinds of channels. Channels have a finite capacity, which in digital technology is called ‘bandwidth’. Does a book have a bandwidth? And what is the relationship between an information object, its medium of transmission, the channel used to convey it and its form (or format)? There is a whole set of intertwined conundra here ripe for the unravelling.

Part 2 to follow...