Knowledge Management Revisited

In Reply to Patrick Lambe

I got trouble, by ndemi, with Creative Commons licenceIt seems I caused a stir with my comments on knowledge management a few days ago. Patrick Lambe, who featured on the second YouTube video in my post, took exception to my position in general and use of ‘snake-oil’ to describe his field in particular. Patrick’s response is over at Green Chameleon, and raises a number of issues beyond the scope of my initial concern, but equally valid.

I’m republishing my counter-comments here largely verbatim, with a few links added, so the debate can be taken to as wide an audience as possible.

Still questions to answer

Patrick, let me begin by saying that I very much appreciate you taking the time to respond in detail to my post on your own blog. But before I reply in kind I just want to clarify one small matter there was no ire to be raised in my post. Not everyone needs an agenda to be critical.

In framing my initial comments on knowledge management under the snake-oil rubric I merely meant to challenge what I see as a poorly defined field, to highlight one important challenge to it, and to say something about photocopier salesmen posing as anything but just that. I notice that you barely touch upon this final point, although I am glad to see that you acknowledge the charlatans on the edges of your field. Given my comments to come, you’ll have to forgive me for continuing to think that they are in the public eye far more than you might imagine.

In any case, therein lies the reasoning that you failed to detect in my post: knowledge management is not a field that shouldn’t have questions asked of it by outsiders.

2008 #50 Getting Clarity, by Jeroen Latour, with Creative Commons licenceInterestingly enough, your response passes over the variety of knowledge management definitions Ray Sims mentioned without giving any proof that they are “not as varied as the sheer number” suggests. Why not? How many definitions would you support?

I acknowledge that your field could well be grappling with problems of classification many are but failing to recognise a lack of clarity as a significant problem seems to me short sighted.

You claim that ambiguity is significant because it allows you to identify the scope of the problems within organisations, to find the “bigger, more significant and productive patterns, understandings and techniques that we need to evolve.” This is a common defence of complex processes, and not one for which I am without sympathy. But let me ask you this why do think that organisations, or ‘social bodies’ as you call them, are necessarily dysfunctional?

To put that another way, are complex systems always somehow broken?

Night market, by zamario, with Creative Commons licenceThere is an entire literature in economics which suggests that many social bodies or systems are self-organising. One such system is the market in which operate most organisations that employ knowledge managers. Something you fail to address is the extent to which these lesser ‘social bodies’ are capable of self-organisation. You make them sound chaotic.

Firms already have one level of functional management. Do they need another level that claims to be correcting ill-defined dysfunction?

The other main point I want to make here is that you seem to take the definition of knowledge and re-make it as you wish. Even though you expend a good deal of effort on explaining what ‘knowledge’ as you see it does, and in outlining its social context, you don’t define what it is.

In presenting a discourse instead of a definition, you also brush aside my comments via T.D. Wilson (and initially Michael Polanyi) on knowledge as a tacit, internal process of understanding and information as external communication, without defending your own concept of “social knowledge”, which in any case would be better described as socialised knowledge.

How can an entire field barricade itself behind a definition that no-one else uses? Well, it clearly happens from my point of view, but what is your justification?

As I mentioned initially, I am (and obviously so) an outsider to your field. I have no hidden agenda when approaching this issue just an interest in clarity where possible, and explanation where not. I did not intend to cast aspersions on how hard you work I work very hard and for long hours in the largely thankless field of editing, so I appreciate your concern. But reading back over my comments just now, it seems that there are still many questions to be answered.


Don’t Stop Questioning, by contrapositively, with Creative Commons licencePatrick offered a very well-considered defence of his field, but as my tone should suggest, I’m still not convinced that ambiguity at any level is power. Anyone who would like to comment on this for, against or otherwise please do.

We need much more debate on matters of definition and interpretation in this puzzling world.


2 Responses to Knowledge Management Revisited

  1. Thanks Mike, I’ve responded in detail to your original comment at my blog. I don’t think ambiguity is power, it’s a big problem. I would argue however, if it’s there, you have to recognise and grapple with it, it’s dangerous to pretend that it’s not there. Think Bush administration simplifications on the War on Terror, Islam and the Middle East, and the true ambiguities and complexities that lie behind that. The less we recognise the more we oversimplify and polarise.

  2. Mike Poole says:

    Patrick, thanks. I’ve responded to your comments and those of Stephen Bounds at Green Chameleon. The point you make here is very good – ambiguity can certainly arise from simplification. But it can also arise from complexity. However, I retract my comment about ambiguity being a barricade in your case because you’ve effectively argued that it’s evidence of a field in progress rather than evasiveness.

    Anyone following this discussion can go to the post on Patrick’s blog to read the various replies. Patrick and Stephen both make very good points.

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