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Friday, June 25, 2004

Earth Rising From Apollo 11
The Poverty of Communitarianism:
Act-KM -- Incident One: Part One

In my last two posts I've discussed conflict, rules, and learning in list servs, spent a good bit of time on communities of inquiry, and also advanced the conjecture that three popular KM list serv groups exhibit a commitment to political and epistemological communitarianism in their ideologies and moderation practices. I also promised to provide more detailed analysis of occurrences in the three groups to document the presence of communitarianism. This post, the first of many on this subject, and the first of nine on act-km covers part of the first incident in the act-km group.

Theory Posts

This incident began innocently enough with a question in message 2893, dated 11/23/03, requesting some quick ideas on the nature of a knowledge audit. There followed a vigorous discussion with a few disagreements expressing differing views on this subject. In message 2910, 11/25/03, Dave Snowden expressed his views on the subject relating his answer to his ASHEN framework. Others asked for clarification about ASHEN, and there followed a number of posts covering ASHEN and its possible role in audits. Matthew Tutaki (message 2924, 11/27/03) then posted a critical comment which, in addition to comments directed specifically at Dave Snowden's claims, also included an ad hominem argument on the role of vendors and on vendor motivation by way of casting doubt on Snowden's substantive views.

Snowden then replied, with a minimum of ad hominem, I thought, followed by a Tutaki comment beginning to break off the exchange. Serena Joyner then intervened with a post (#2929, 11/27/03) that spoke favorably about the value of exchange in the act-km group, Snowden's work, and also criticized posts that were overly long and contained personal attacks. She also criticized "those who may use the forum to push their particular barrow, particularly if it is ill-informed or not backed up with evidence. Look, it just gets boring!" Joyner finished her message with the admonition: "We have a fabulous arena for debate and knowledge creation - lets keep it so."

Following Joyner's post, a few more posts supporting ASHEN appeared, and then the original thread morphed into a new one called ASHEN and Relationships. This thread introduced a bit of debate about whether it was useful to collapse ASHEN categories. Then, in message 2946, on 12/07/03, Mark McElroy raised the question of whether ASHEN makes a clear distinction between information and knowledge.

McElroy's post contained no ad hominems, personal attacks, or labeling of ASHEN or its main author, Dave Snowden. Snowden replied (in message 2950, 12/0703) with an account of how he uses ASHEN, attempting to show that the way he uses it does not require a clear distinction between Information and Knowledge. For the most part, his response avoided personal or ad hominem attacks and labeling, but at one point he implied that he, presumably, in comparison to others, does not play word games and he also provided the following gratuitous comment. 

"I don't really want to get sucked into the beliefs and claims issue that seems to be an obsession of the latest KMCI method, I thing is a misreading of Popper but accepted long ago that we were no going to agree on this!"

This statement is not related to the substantive argument, but is a reference with a pejorative tone that labels the KMCI perspective as obsessive and negatively evaluates its interpretation and use of Popper's epistemology without explaining its negative evaluation.

Mark McElroy (in 2951, 12/07/03) replied almost immediately with a comment that answered Snowden's critique and largely avoided anything personal. At one point however, McElroy used sarcasm to get a point across saying:

".   .   .  And though I do not profess to have access to the truth, much less feel that anyone can know it with certainty, I do not feel this warrants the abandonment of its pursuit as a regulative ideal.  If you disagree, what shall we call your brand of KM, Knowledge [as if it matters] Management?"

In message 2953, 12/08/03, Snowden delivered a response which avoided personal attack, with the exception of some labeling to the effect that McElroy made a terrible number of assumptions in his post, until the very last paragraph. There he criticized a presentation on epistemology by myself and McElroy, by using an ad hominem and a very personal attack in relation to KMCI's promotional use of an evaluation of the content of a joint presentation by Mark and myself at the KM Global Exchange conference a couple of years ago. It is not clear, how his point, namely, that a fact can lead one to a conclusion that is different than one might arrive at if one had a more complete set of facts, is connected either to our epistemology presentation, or to the previous posts exchanged between the two concerning the ASHEN model.

At that point, Kate Andrews intervened (message 2954, 12/08/03) saying: "I wonder if others share discomfort that for a 'no one-right-way' discipline we seem to spend much time in this forum defending to the death our own 'one-right-way' of seeing the KM landscape." Kate's was the first of five posts that day criticizing either the theoretical discussions, the ego involvement of the people contributing to them, their complex language, or their "boring" character. This was punctuated by McElroy's reply to Snowden (message 2960, 12/08/03). It included two instances of labeling:

"Where does your uncritical pandering to the powers that be and their strategies end, and why should the rest of us in KM subscribe to it?" And:

"Well I guess thatís a pretty cynical and condescending point of view.  I try to tell the truth when asked to, donít you?"

Mark's post was followed by a few that expressed concern about the hostile exchanges that were occurring. One post focused on substance and compared the McElroy and Snowden points of view. Another post by Snowden said that he was ending the discussion, but insisted on the validity of his personal attack. And finally a message (2968, 12/08/03) by Sylvia Marshall that asked both Dave and Mark to take their argument off-line ("The rest of us don't want to know"). In message 2969, 12/09/03, Mark responded to Snowden by summarizing his case and pointing out that Dave had failed to answer any of his questions. He also addressed the increasing expressions of angst in the group about the exchanges over theory saying:

"To the others on this list, I know that some of you do not want to see or participate in this thread any longer.  For those that do (as some of you have indicated), I will be happy to go along.  Others can just hit the delete button, I guess.  Letís see what happens.  After all, this is an open community, isnít it?" (emphasis added)

Mark's post was followed by one reflecting positively on the debate, and then by a post by Bill Hall (message 2972, 12/09/03) advancing the idea that the conflict of views among McElroy, Snowden, and myself (though I had yet to post anything to the group), was due to paradigm incommensurabilities. Bill also commented on the strengths of both approaches and his areas of disagreement.

At this point, Mark Schenk, the moderator of act-km, thought (message 2973, 12/10/03) it was time for him to comment on the past few weeks of interaction. His post celebrated diversity, and then made the following comment:

"Secondly, the passion of the debate is undeniable, indicating people who care deeply about the subject matter. The willingness to share so openly is fantastic, and it creates a great learning opportunity. We just need to ensure people are not discomfited by the passion descending to a level that attacks rather than analyses and critiques in a constructive manner." (emphasis added)

He then followed with a statement of his commitment to self-moderation for the group and a request that posters observe group netiquette, which he summarized, while referring readers to a posted file for the full version. Mark Schenk's post was the first expression of moderator concern about conflict exhibited in the exchanges.

After Mark Schenk's intervention, the first two of my posts to the list serv appeared. The first (message 2974, 12/10/03) was a comment on Bill Hall's post pointing out that there were direct logical conflicts between my views and Dave Snowden's and not just incommensurabilities. The second (message 2975, 12/10/03) entered the debate between Mark McElroy and Dave. It made the point of the importance of the distinction between knowledge and information even more strongly and then addressed the meta-debate about whether the thread on ASHEN should end with these words:

"Again, I'd like to put this point more directly, if I might. The calls from various people to end this thread, are calls to stop other members of the group from posting civil messages designed to further the group's process of  inquiry. These calls are requests to "block the way of inquiry" to quote Charles Sanders Peirce. To the extent such calls are successful, or even thought to be legitimate, they stand in the way of critical examination of conflicting points of view concerning the ASHEN Model. They therefore harm our collective efforts to increase our knowledge about it, since we can only learn about the quality of our knowledge claims by seeing whether they survive the criticisms and other tests they face. (emphasis added)

Since fostering inquiry must be among the chief purposes of a community devoted to KM practice, such communities ought to be tolerant to a fault about such exchanges. They should not be anxious to smooth them over in the interests of a harmony that ends such interactions prematurely, or in the interests of escaping boredom. In the end, what harm is there to members in getting posts that explore deeply issues they are not interested in? No one has to read such posts and all are free to begin other threads that they are interested in. So why enforce a community view of what should be discussed on even a small minority, and risk losing the chance that something someone says in the throes of dialog may be very significant for the group as a whole?"

The material in both these posts was entirely substantive. There were no ad hominems, personal attacks, or labels used in them.

Mark McElroy followed my post with one (message 2976, 12/10/03) responding to a post of David Hawthorne's arguing against the idea that one needs truth as a regulative ideal for knowledge production. Mark's post was entirely civil, substantive, and courteous, as was David's response in message 2977, 12/10/03. Dave Snowden (message 2978, 12/10/03) and Mark McElroy (message 2980, 12/10/03) then exchanged posts. Both were polite. Mark's post avoided personal attacks. Snowden's post repeated his labeling of Popper's views as "narrow" and the interpretation of his views by Mark and I as a narrow construal of Popper without explaining his reasons for these characterizations. He also softened but still sought to justify and excuse his attack on Mark relating to KMCI's promotion of the evaluation of its conference presentation. Mark then addressed (message 2982, 12/10/03) Bill Hall's previous characterization of KM in another very substantive post without personal attacks, ad hominems or labeling. Bill did not respond to this post, but I responded (message 2990, 12/13/03) with a commentary on the nature of KM and the priority of KM over strategy. Once again, there was nothing personal in the style of this post and no response from Bill was forthcoming.

During the time the ASHEN thread was slowing down, it began to "spin off" other exchanges. First, Robert Perey (message 2993, 12/14/03) took issue with Mark McElroy on the idea of "truth" and advocated a concept of degrees of truth applying fuzzy logic. Mark (message 2997, Shawn Callahan (message, 3002) and I (message 2999), all commented, with Shawn supporting Robert, and Mark and I critiquing his views. No personal comments or labeling occurred during these exchanges.

Second, Mathew Tutaki, Amanda Horne, Dave Snowden, Gray Southon, David Rymer, Mark McElroy, James Dellow, and I began to exchange views on KM Standards. These posts (2985, 2986, 2989, 2991, 2992, 2995, 2996, 3000, 3007, 3008, and 3009) all avoided personalizing issues. In message 3003, 12/14/03, during a discussion of the idea introduced by Dave that "Ontology precedes Epistemology", however, I offered an ad hominem argument to suggest that this idea needed to be looked at carefully against its competitors. But I also carefully identified the ad hominem, and did not claim it as a reason for thinking that the idea was false. Nor did I use the ad hominem to personally attack Dave Snowden. Rather, I used it as a reason to avoid hasty adoption of the "Ontology precedes Epistemology" notion without critically evaluating it against alternatives.

Third, a thread also started on Technology as a Tool. This thread involved Greg Timbrell, James Dellow and myself in posts 2994, 3004, 3005, and 3010. All exchanges avoided personal comments and were highly substantive.

I'll continue with Part Two of Incident One in my next blog.


I'd like to thank Mark McElroy, my continuing close collaborator and sounding board for contributing to this and the other blog posts in this series on communitarianism. His insights have been of tremendous help in accounting for whatever quality these posts may have. And while he does not bear responsibility for my specific views, he has said that he wishes to associate himself with the general critique of communitarianism in KM list serv groups expressed in this series.

In addition to the books and classes referred to in the margins on this page, youíll find much more information on the theories and models underlying this post at three web sites:,, and Many papers on The New Knowledge Management are available for downloading there. Our Excerpt from The Open Enterprise  .  .  . may also be purchased there. Our print books are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or

9:46:27 PM    comment []

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