The Savage State (Thomas Cole, 1836)
Organizational Problem Solving
the opening blog of "All Life is Problem Solving", I gave a general
account of how problem solving occurs in living things including
humans. But are organizations living systems, or, at least, are they
like living systems in their problem solving patterns? How does
organizational problem solving happen?
In seeking an answer to that question, Iíd like
you to recall Popperís theory of knowledge making as I explained it in
my first blog. In living systems, ordinary activity sometimes leads to
situations that donít match predispositional knowledge and
expectations. This leads to formulating tentative solutions, and then
to error elimination producing new knowledge and expectations. With that theory in mind, letís begin with decisions and actions, the
ordinary activity of organizations. Decisions are part of a sequence
that has been described in slightly varying terms, using many names
(e.g., the organizational learning cycle, the experiential learning
cycle, the adaptive loop, and others). I call it the Decision Execution
Cycle (DEC). It includes planning, acting, monitoring, and evaluating
behaviors. Decisions are produced by planning and are embodied in
acting. Decisions produce actions. And actions - activities - are the
stuff that social processes, social networks, and (complex adaptive)
social systems are made of. These are built up (integrated) from
activities in ways my collaborator and friend Mark McElroy and I have
described in our books (See McElroy, The New Knowledge Management, KMCI Press/Butterworth-Heinemann, 2003; Firestone, Enterprise Information Portals and Knowledge Management, KMCI Press/Butterworth-Heinemann 2003; and Firestone and McElroy, Key Issues in the New Knowledge Management, KMCI Press/Butterworth-Heinemann, 2003, and Excerpt #1 from The Open Enterprise: Building Business Architectures for Openness and Sustainable Innovation, KMCI Online Press, 2003).
Now let's distinguish three tiers of
organizational processes: (1) operational processes, (2) knowledge
processes, and (3) processes for managing knowledge processes.
Operational processes are those that use knowledge but,
apart from knowledge about specific events and conditions, whose
acquisition doesnít require problem solving, donít produce or integrate
it. For that, we turn to knowledge processes. There are two knowledge
processes: knowledge production, the process an organization executes that produces new solutions to its problems; and knowledge integration, the process that presents
this new knowledge to individuals and groups comprising the
organization. Knowledge production and problem solving, on this
account, are one and the same. There are at least 9 processes related
to managing knowledge processes. I wonít cover them in this blog, but
Iíll have occasion to return to these Knowledge Management processes in
other blogs. Incidentally, the three
tiers of organizational processing I just distinguished, are part of a
high-level model Mark and I developed at the Knowledge Management
Consortium International (KMCI). We use the model as one of the
organizing constructs in our Certificate course in Knowledge and
Innovation Management (CKIM). You can see a graphic on p. 8 of the KMCI
Brochure at: http://www.kmci.org/KMCI_Brochure_as_of_3.04.pdf.
What corresponds to Popperís theory of knowledge making at the level of organizations? To begin, problems
occur for organizations just as they do for other systems.
Organizations go through problem production processes to produce their
knowledge of problems. Here is how things work. Operational
business processes are performed by individuals and groups using
previous knowledge, both their own mental knowledge, knowledge claims
in organizational repositories; and also situational knowledge, the
result of on-going non-problematic learning, to make decisions.
Sometimes previous knowledge and situational knowledge do not provide
the answers they need to perform their roles in organizational processes.
If so, a problem has arisen -- an epistemic gap between what an agent
knows and what it needs to know to perform its role in the
organizational process. Such a problem initiates knowledge processing: specifically, a new knowledge production process.
Popperís second step of attempted solutions corresponds to three sub-processes of knowledge production at the organizational level:
is, once an organizational problem is produced, there is a need to
formulate tentative solutions in response. These can come from new
individual and group learning efforts to address the problem; or from
external sources through information acquisition; or from entirely
creative knowledge claim formulation efforts; or all three. Where the
tentative solutions come from, and in what sequence, is of no
importance to the self-organizing knowledge processing pattern of
- Information Acquisition
- Individual and Group Learning
- Knowledge Claim Formulation
Individual and group learning is itself knowledge
processing. It produces knowledge claims for consideration at higher
levels of analysis of knowledge processing. But at the individual and
group levels, learning is knowledge production and also problem
solving. Let's call this the recursive "nesting" of problem solving in
organizations. Knowledge claim formulation uses the results of both
information acquisition, and individual and group learning, and its own
sub-process interactions to produce alternative solutions for:
knowledge is not produced until the tentative solutions, the previously
formulated knowledge claims, have been tested and evaluated. And KCE is
the way in which organizational agents select among tentative solutions
(competitive alternatives), by comparing them against each other in the
context of perspectives, criteria, or newly created ideas for selecting
- Knowledge Claim Evaluation (KCE); the organizational sub-process corresponding to error elimination in Popperís theory.
KCE is at the very
center of knowledge processing and knowledge production. Think about
it. Without it, what is the difference between information and
knowledge? How do we know that we are integrating knowledge rather than
just information? Or that the "knowledge" weíre using in operational
business processes is of high quality? Absent a social process in
organizations, be it formal or informal, through which competing claims
can be held to tests of veracity or verisimilitude, how can we possibly
make judgments about truth versus falsity? Knowledge claim evaluation,
then, is what gives us the ability to know knowledge when we see it.
knowledge is produced by KCE, and an organizational problem is solved,
the process of knowledge integration begins. Knowledge integration is
an organizational process that may have a loose analog at the
individual level in the processes of reinforcement learning, which fix
knowledge in memory and synaptic patterns. Knowledge integration
distributes organizational knowledge claims across knowledge
repositories and also distributes beliefs about these knowledge claims
across the organization.
Knowledge integration is made up of four more
sub-processes, all of which may use interpersonal, electronic, or both
types of methods in execution:
is no particular sequence to these integration sub-processes. One or
all of them may be used to present what has been produced to the
organization's agents or to store it.
- Knowledge and Information Broadcasting
- Knowledge Sharing (peer-to-peer presentation of previously produced knowledge), and
- Teaching (hierarchical presentation of previously produced knowledge)
Those agents receiving knowledge or information through knowledge integration don't receive it passively.
For them, it represents a communication that may create a knowledge gap
and initiate a new round of their own problem solving. The integration
of knowledge, therefore, doesn't signal its "acceptance." It only
signals that the instance of knowledge processing initiated by the
problem is over and that new problems, for some, have been initiated by
the solution. For others, the knowledge integrated is knowledge to be
used: either to continue with executing the business process that
initiated the original problem, or at a later time when the situation
calls for it.
Either way, the original problem that motivated
knowledge processing is gone. It was born in the operational business
process, solved in the knowledge production process, integrated
throughout the organization afterwards, and, in this way, it ceased to
be a problem -- i.e., it died. This pattern is a life cycle, a
birth-and-death cycle for problems arising from business processes and
through which new knowledge is also produced. Since the life cycle
gives rise to knowledge, both mental and cultural (linguistic), Mark
McElroy and I call it the Knowledge Life Cycle (KLC) (See p. 12 of the
KMCI Brochure for a graphic at:
Every organization produces its knowledge through
myriad KLCs that arise from its problems. KLCs occur at the
organizational level and also at every level of social interaction and
individual functioning in the organization. It is through these cycles
that knowledge is produced, and the organization acquires the solutions
it needs to adapt to its environment.
The KLC is another critical organizing concept
used at KMCI in our CKIM classes and developed extensively in our
books. KCE is discussed in some detail in Chapter 5 of our Key Issues in the New Knowledge Management,
KMCI Press/Butterworth-Heinemann, 2003, and I suspect this is the most
complete treatment of KCE in the recent KM literature, where KCE is,
most often glossed over, or ignored entirely.
Organizational knowledge and problem solving processes, of course, produce outcomes. From my point of view, knowledge
is an encoded, tested, evaluated, and still surviving structure of
information that helps the system (agent) that developed it to adapt.
There are two types of knowledge important in organizations: (1)
tested, evaluated, and surviving beliefs or belief predispositions (in
minds) about the world; and (2) tested, evaluated, and surviving,
sharable (objective), linguistic formulations (knowledge claims) about
the world. There are also other outcomes of knowledge processes, the
most important of which are knowledge claims about the performance of
other knowledge claims during knowledge claim evaluation.
Mark McElroy and I call these Ďmeta-claimsí, or claims about claims.
Organizational linguistic knowledge consists of claims that have
survived our tests, criticisms, and evaluations, along with their
corresponding meta-claims, whose content records the performance of
The various outcomes of knowledge processes may
be viewed as part of an abstraction we call the Distributed
Organizational Knowledge Base (DOKB). The DOKB in organizations has
electronic storage components. But it is more than that, because it
contains all of the outcomes of knowledge processing in documents, and
non-electronic media. And since it includes beliefs and belief
predispositions, as well, it also includes all of the mental knowledge
in the organization as well.
For More InformationYouíll find much more information on the theories and models offered in this paper at three web sites: dkms.com, macroinnovation.com, and kmci.org.
The last web site has the most complete information on the CKIM class
team-taught by Mark and myself, and on our new KM strategy and
methodology class called K-STREAM(tm). Many papers on The New Knowledge
Management are available for downloading at all three sites. Our
Excerpt from The Open Enterprise . . . may also be purchased at any of them. Our print books are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Elsevier/Butterworth-Heinemann.
Finally, there will be many more blogs coming and these will apply the
point of view expressed here to many of the major issues in Knowledge Management today.