Corporate Epistemology and 'The New KM' LO29722

From: Mark W. McElroy (
Date: 12/23/02

Replying to LO29700 --

Dear Chris:

Thank you for your comments. Let me try to answer your questions.

Chris Macrae wrote:

>I agree with your conclusions and particularly like slides 50 to 59 but do
>wonder if it could be simpler- if we work back for what we actually want
>to achieve for knowledge workers, do we need to get management to buy into
>your whole frame ( suspect the frame supports a lot of wonderful
>engineering of human connectivity but does everyone need to see it for it
>to be used? is its language common enough?)

Yes, this could easily be simpler. My audience was an academic one;
thus, I chose to deal with the topic at a more granular level, as it were.
Besides, what makes 'The New KM' distinctively new is its Popperian roots,
so it needed to be said and illustrated at that level at least once. I
have not yet tried to repackage the Popperian message in a more
business-friendly form, but will be trying to do so shortly. That will be
a challenge.

>My starting place is Drucker (surprised he didnt get a mention)
I'm not aware of any statements of epistemology from Drucker, are you?
>When people were used as clones between dumb machines, they were not
>knowledge workers- they were not expected to use personal strengths; the
>line required they act like a machine to fill in the bits between the
>machine; if they started using individuality the dumb machines might mass
>produce a million defective products

All true, but that didn't mean that other people weren't learning or
engaging in knowledge processing on behalf of enterprises and line
workers. Managers were. So we still had knowledge workers in
organizations, only fewer of them thanks to the repetitious nature of
industry and mass production styles of manufacturing. What's changed over
the years is the proportion of knowledge workers to, say, non-knowledge
workers. As the proportion of the former has increased, the currency of
issues related to learning and the role of knowledge in organizations has
also expanded.

>As soon as the machines are smart or we are directly serving people not
>standing in machine lines, our value becomes in what are individual
>strengths are and how they fit in the organsiational patterns; and for me
>the pattern itself is defined by what stakeholders demand from the
>organization as well as what unique (building to last) vision the
>organisation has (what would its stakeholder world uniquely miss if it did
>not exist, and what is it uniquely progressing for the future)

Yes, but as I say, there have always been customers and workers who needed
to interact with them. The proportion of their number has simply grown.
The other point implied in your remarks, with which I agree, is that we're
moving from a mainly 'make and sell' mode of doing business to a 'sense
and respond' one. But these are separate points.

>In a networked world, it is also unclear where the boundaries of knowledge
>are; ie companies should be open with partners as its networks of
>companies and individuals that serve the world no single organisation

I agree. But this is yet a third point you've made -- that enterprises
are gradually giving way to interprises.

>I think part of the trap then is to define knowledge as if it is owned by
>an organization. It flows. This also implies interesting things which
>Drucker has for long pointed out. You shouldn't try to manage a knowledge
>workers' network because he or she is best placed to know the
>responsibilities of knowledge to deliver, share and learn next; you should
>try to support knowledge with a clear and open system where the situated
>knowledge worker can see who is being served (directly and across the
>organization or network of organisations)

I agree with this. In fact, one of the key premises behind 'The New KM'
is that when left to their own devices, people tend to self-organize
around the production and integration of knowledge in organizations and
that the behaviors they display when they do so have pattern-like
regularity to them. This is part of what links complexity theory to OL
and KM. The lesson that complexity theory teaches us is not only that
such patterns form, but that the proper role of management and leaders in
organizations, relative to learning and innovation, is to set and maintain
the conditions needed to support the pattern, as opposed to trying to
manage the behaviors, per se. You don't manage emergent systems; you
manage their conditions.

>Now maybe I haven't chosen perfect words in the quick write-up- but what I
>would like to ask your views on is : why is the following idea complex???
>Knowledge flows in human connectivity (all be it amplifiable by technology
>and supportable by system structure) complex) and that for the
>connectivity to have value they should have system patterns
>(organisations) where everyone gains from being served by (being connected
>to) the system

Well, if you mean by "complex" to invoke complexity theory, I refer you my
statements just above. Organizations are adaptive systems, as are the
people and groups within them. Their business behaviors are nothing mre
than 'knowledge in use,' and their knowledge is the product of learning.
To succeed in business, therefore, requires success in learning, the
application of which, over time, constitutes adaptation. This is why
learning trumps strategy in business as the most important factor in
performance and sustainability. For without effective learning, we lose
our capacity to adapt, no matter how good a given strategy is at a
particular point in time. And what's complex about all this is that
learning in organizations is an emergent social process. Complexity theory
equips us with the perspective needed to 'see it,' and also with tools and
insights about how to manage it. The irony in the end is that you don't
manage it at all; it's self-organizing. What you manage are the
conditions around it, and from within which it either performs well or it

>My guess (though I would love to hear your guess) is that there are two
>inter-related reasons why this is complex - apart from the above flow
>paradigm not being as intimately agreed as a common language of living
>systems should be
> 1) we don't measure this so; in fact what we meaure degrades living
>systems at compound rates

Yes, this is part and parcel of attempts to 'manage the system,' not its
conditions, which essentially amounts to interfering with it and stunting
its capacity to do precisely what it would do if we would only leave it
alone -- learn and innovate!

> 2) 'management" needs to change its role model from command and control
>to facilitating every persons co-responsibility as knwledge co-workers

I will accept this as a good description of what I mean by managing the
conditions, not the system.

>Here we are simply back on Drucker ground. As I read him, he has been
>advising 1,2 for decades as soon as he saw most prodcutivity was no longer
>being derived by making people slaves to machines. Anyone agree or
>disagree? Its important in the sense that if this simply boils down to 1),
>2), we should all go demand it. In particular we should not expect that
>the vested interest in the old accounting measurement monopoly are going
>to help design the new open governance system that knowledge workers need
>to be measured by; we need to map and open source this as one
>metadisciplinary effort; the maths though detailed is very simple; but it
>does not revolve round the separation operands that accountants rule with
>to count value transacted with lifeless products and through costing
>de-knowledgised people in the machine age

I think individual orgaizations need not wait for the system to change in
order to make the kinds of changes we're talking about here. Privately
held organizations, in particular, are well positioned to make the move
towards openness in knowledge processing that I and others are referring
to as 'The Open Enterprise.' I hope there will be some readers of this
list who will want to learn more about this concept and what it might mean
for them and the performance of their organizations. For without openness
in knowledge processing, there can be no learning organization or
sustainable business.




"Mark W. McElroy" <>

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