Knowledge Management Consortium, International
312 Fairgrove Terrace, Suite 200
Gaithersburg, MD 20877

Date: Wed, 22 Nov 2000 15:53:37 -0500

From:   Mark W. McElroy
Organization: Macroinnovation Associates, LLC


Subject:   Knowledge Theory

John Maloney wrote on November 22, 2000...


Thanks for copying me on this exchange. I have followed it with interest.

Mark, you've done a nice job of capturing and leading a lot of the thought in this area.

Thank you.

John Maloney wrote on November 22, 2000...

While I don't have a problem with the principles in general, I think it is only fair to state some of the predicates of the "knowledge theory."

If the 'knowledge theory' is simply an academic exercise or ontology, then fine.

However, from my review it seems as if there is a belief or predicate in the large-scale, unbounded, and mechanized production of useful knowledge. This is a false & dangerous presupposition.

I agree, althought there's nothing mechanized about the KMCI model or my own ideas, so far as I know. In fact, we've tried very hard to stay away from such reductionism and have placed our bets, instead, on the existence of knowledge nonlinearities, if you will, in human social systems.

Still, the fact that we base our thinking on the view that there are knowledge life cycles in play does not equate to mechanistic thinking. Even wildly unpredictable and emergent systems can be characterized by such cycles. In complexity science they're called "strange attractors."

John Maloney wrote on November 22, 2000...

Michael Porter defines "innovation" simply as productivity growth. Indeed, the lifecycle approach, systems thinking, quality management, Collective IQ, etc., are all proven mechanisms to advance productivity and productivity growth (innovation).

Productivity is an economic term invented long after living systems were "innovating," last time I checked. If that's Porter's notion of innovation then I disagree with him. If it's only productivity we're all after, then we might as well forget about sustainability because the former is often achieved at the expense of the latter. I'm not interested in the econometric bias to knowledge and innovation if its only about productivity.

John Maloney wrote on November 22, 2000...

The refinement and continuous pursuit of these methods is honorable and valuable.

The danger is these methods are linear and deterministic.

Or "can be" linear and mechanistic.

John Maloney wrote on November 22, 2000...

True creativity is neither. In fact, structured, robotic, 'production' settings as described, most often stifle randomness, chaos, agility and the true context of creativity. Complexity science & OL simply do not provide an adequate explanation or methodology for the highly erratic and capricious nature of dazzling originality and spectacular invention.

Well I guess we disagree there. First, the explanation you say is missing from complexity theiry is precisely the one that I think complexity theory offers. CAS theory, in particular, is nothing if not a theory on how capricious, unpredictable and ninlinear learning happens in living systems. That's its jaw-dropping beauty. As for OL, I would tend to agree with you there. In fact, I have argued that practitioners of OL should spend more time thinking about CAS theory as a source of inspiration for understanding HOW organizations learn.

John Maloney wrote on November 22, 2000...

Today, most business activity and thinking is still concerned with linear mechanical habit. Thus, these "production" offerings have an important place in today's lexicon and toolkit.

However, new wealth-producing processes require a much higher degree of individual intellectual & creative effort. In this environment, knowledge management must strive to enhance & expand zones of collaboration, sharing, learning, play, context, content, expression and community for individuals. It does not involve rigid, cybernetic processes of identification, codification, control, production and maximization, for example. The KM pursuit is an environment of effortless sharing and unconscious collaboration. The objective is to maximize the efficiencies & effectiveness of mental concentration, cognition and imagination, not "production" of knowledge.

Yes. I agree with all of that. In fact, I declared that view as comprising a "second generation" of thinking on KM in a paper published a year ago in KM magazine, and which is freely available on my website.

John Maloney wrote on November 22, 2000...

In the future, "knowledge theory" will be quite simply and directly about the state of knowing. It will have less and less to do with control, systems, production, processes, mechanics or methodologies.


John Maloney wrote on November 22, 2000...

Another example is agriculture. By far, the vast majority of the earth's population concerns themselves from dawn 'til dusk with producing foodstuff. We don't. Because of this, and the extremely low probability that I will starve, allows me to write this message. You'll agree that our society has totally mastered the production of food.

Well, I would agree that we have totally mastered the practice of unsustainable food production, yes. Thank you for substantiating the distinction I made in my Porter comment above.

John Maloney wrote on November 22, 2000...

We never think about the production of food. It is the envy of the world. Yet, >60% of Americans are morbidly obese. This excess accounts for the vast 'disease care' system that could bankrupt our economy. 800,000 Americans die prematurely each -year- because of obesity. If this was by war or by accident, it would be a national catastrophe. These are just examples of the side effects of a "production" system that has run amok. Close parallels can be drawn to this dysfunctional production process and enterprise excess of "knowledge production." Quite honestly, it is more important to create meaning than to "produce knowledge." More companies suffer from knowledge indigestion than starvation. A "production" system exacerbates this problem.

Exactly. All of which adds up to my general idictment of industry as practitioners of unsustainable innovation on a massive scale. I argue that not only are businesses subject to measures of sustainability, but so are their innovation processes and practices, as well.

John Maloney wrote on November 22, 2000...

Look at how lean, lightning-fast start-ups whip their far larger competition mostly because they enjoy an open, fast moving culture of close collaboration, urgency, *customers* and collective goal seeking, for example. Knowledge production isn't on their radar.

Agreed. They practice "first generation, supply-side KM." Very shallow.

John Maloney wrote on November 22, 2000...

Anyway, thanks again for this message and this important work, research and thought. It is a real contribution. As this work evolves, the following 1945 quote from the great Nobel Laureate economist Friedrich August Von Hayek is even more prescient:

"Every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him."

It is from "The Use of Knowledge in Society," which I recommend.

Thanks, John, for the feedback and pleasant dialogue.



Copy to:

  1. Rod Welch