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Tuesday, June 29, 2004

The Poverty of Communitarianism: Act-KM --

Troubled Participation: Part One

In my last post I analyzed the history of an incident in the act-km group from both political and epistemological perspectives. I concluded that during December of 2003, the act-km group was characterized by political communitarianism, but I also found that there was insufficient evidence in the record to conclude that epistemological communitarianism applied to the group as well. In my next two blog posts, I'll pick up the story of act-km in January of 2004 and cover the time period through the end of April 2004.

Back to Normal Peace and Quiet

After the intense period of exchange on theoretical subjects, the act-km group participants settled into a variety of friendly, civil exchanges on such practice-focused topics as: Review of Projects and Lessons Learned, XK Extreme Knowledge, Prioritization of Knowledge Initiatives, Dear Sheep's Brother (an exchange on language and its relationship to culture), Query on Classification Schemes for Knowledge Retrieval, and Risk Mitigation and KM. Except for occasional informational contributions neither Mark, Dave Snowden, nor myself were involved. Critical discussions about framework or theory differences were relatively sparse. Of the three of us, Mark was most active, posting on the Prioritization, and KM and Risk Mitigation threads and making a few announcements.

Increasing Participation on Theoretical Issues

The next exchange that began to show increasing participation on theoretical issues began with a thread on Managing KM --Training, which appeared towards the end of March. The thread began when Greg Timbrell asked whether "in KM are we managing projects, programs, or endeavours?" Alice MacGillvray (03/31/04) answered with a post saying "I think the answer depends on two things: how you define knowledge management and where you sit in the process." Alice went on to discuss Mark McElroy's definition of KM and also spoke of a broader approach in which she gave examples of KM in relation to all three categories. Mark McElroy then responded (03/31/04) with a clarification of what he meant by KM and an endorsement of Alice's view. Greg (04/04/04) then responded with the idea that KM has elements in it that go beyond Project Management, stated his view that it required Program Management and "resource, cultural, and process control" capability. Mark responded (04/05/04) by agreeing with Greg and by asking him what he thought that KM should be doing, and what he thought the goal of KM that underlies its program should be.

Greg (04/06/04) replied by complimenting Mark on his "simple and powerful" questions and by providing answers to both questions with the following statement.

"I believe that KM is about using a knowledge perspective to maximise the use of firm resources and improve business processes and relationships in alignment with corporate goals."

Mark then responded (04/07/04) by disagreeing with Greg about KM's purpose of aligning with corporate goals and offering the theory that KM should "instead, worry about enhancing the quality of learning, innovation, and problem solving independent of our strategies du jour." This response of Mark's was followed by extensive and vigorous theoretical discussion of the issue of whether KM should be aligned with corporate goals and/or strategies. Greg (04/08/04), Rachel Baker (04/11/04) Dave Snowden (04/12/04), Warwick Holder (04/12/04), Paul James (04/14/04), Christie Mason (04/15/04), and Mark (various replies), all contributed to a very civil discussion.

On 04/14/04, Dave Snowden responded to Mark again with a strong but civil disagreement with Mark's view and Mark responded in kind on the same day. But his response contained the first statement in the exchanges that may be viewed as a personal attack, when after asking Dave whether he believed something he followed with: "Are you that much of an authoritarian?"

I then provided (04/15/04) my first post on this subject. That post was a close analysis of Dave's post of 04/14, primarily claiming that it did not address many of the questions Mark had raised. I also responded to Christie's post addressing the question of how you address the question of the impact of KM without connecting to management's strategy or goals. Larry Langman then (04/15/4) posted to try to clarify Mark's view further with an example. Mark did not respond quickly. His next post emphasized "the strategy exception error" and the Governance-based approach to KM by way of further response to Paul James's intervention.

The Buildup to Angst

The posts following Mark's response were from others commenting on his views. Paul McDowell (04/15/04) expressed the view that KM should be part of all aspects of management and then (04/16/04) asked whether organizations were using Mark's paradigm of KM. Patrick Lambe (04/15/04) criticized Mark for the negative personal comment reflected in the question he asked Dave, and then went on to say that:

".   .   .  alignment can also mean that two things are managed into a workable relationship without either forcing the other to its purpose (Strategy compelling KM or KM compelling Strategy). So it would be perfectly possible in thinking of those situations to see KM and Strategy as convergent and complementary processes."

Patrick also questioned (message 3382, 04/19/04) my post of the 15th, asking whether I was pursuing the topic of discussion or Dave Snowden. In reply, (04/19/04), I responded by asking him whether he thought that Dave's lack of responsiveness to Mark's criticisms was relevant to whether Dave's view that Mark's conclusion is wrong should be given credence or not?

Fred Nickols (04/16/04) asked whether Mark's view implied that the CEO was subordinate to KM through the Board, and whether, in this view, some of the organizational management burden would not be shifted from the CEO to the CKO. He also asked, in a separate post on the same day, whether KM was a knowledge claim, and, if so, why is it more scared than strategy. I replied to that by saying (04/19/04) that KM was not a knowledge claim, but that statements about it were, and were no more sacred than strategy claims. Jeff Popova-Clark (04/19/04) expressed the view that the approach to KM was a matter of perspective, and that one could certainly look at KM from many differing perspectives including a Governance perspective.

Mark McElroy then began to post responses to the various comments on his posts. On April 19th, Mark answered Paul McDowell's question on whether any organizations used a Governance-based approach to KM. He answered Fred Nickols's questions about knowledge claims, whether the CEO is subordinate to the CKO, and whether there is a shifting of the Management burden in the Governance-based approach. He next replied to Larry Langman's analogy and said it was a good one. He followed that reply with an extensive answer to Patrick Lambe's post of the 15th, but here he did not acknowledge the personal overtones in his question to Snowden, and also made reference and even used the word "totalitarianism" in connection with views that suggest that learning should be constrained to activities that support management.

Patrick Lambe then followed with three more posts on the 19th. He agreed with Jeff Popova-Clark's post. He replied to one of Mark's posts. He responded to Mark's citation of examples of the Governance-based approach by suggesting that the US Government might be currently providing an example of such an organization. Finally, he posted a message saying that he meant no negative overtones in his previous post, but that he thought that ideas stand or fall by who believes in them.

Mark answered Patrick on the 20th, pointing out that the idea that knowledge stands or falls based on who believes it may be true, but that it is arguably irresponsible to say so because it encourages appeals to authority in evaluating knowledge -- an ad hominem argument. He also characterized Jeff Popova-Clark's position as relativistic without explaining why -- a use of labeling in discourse. Jeff replied making a number of interesting points, including that he, like Mark, was a realist, but that he believed in the need for multiple reference frames in viewing multi-dimensional truth. Mark then responded briefly and personably to Patrick's post about the US government.

The Expression of Angst and the Temporary Denouement

Up to this point, a very extensive exchange had taken place between Mark and various correspondents including myself over a period of three weeks. Most posts were devoid of personal attacks, labeling, or ad hominem arguments, with the exception of a handful from Mark. Many very high quality posts (in my view) resulted from these exchanges and the discussion became fairly deep on certain aspects of the issue of Management vs. Governance-based KM. The next post (04/20/04) was from Stuart Kay. It was entitled "Cat Among the Pigeons", and it contained a fairly extensive statement of a relativistic position including a lengthy quote from Ronald Dworkin, a noted legal philosopher supporting relativism. The essence of Stuart Kay's view was expressed in his statement:

".  .   .  I find all practical and theoretical posts to this list useful, but not the claims - explicit or implicit - of authors that their views are better or more correct."

That is, Stuart's view implies that competitive knowledge claim evaluation, using close logical analysis is not a useful activity. Stuart's post shortly was reinforced by Sylvia Marshall who did not explicitly state support for the position of relativism, but viewed Stuart's post as an attack on the "dramatics" and "the grand-standing" of unnamed posters. Patrick Lambe also supported Stuart's view. I quickly responded to Stuart's post by providing a very detailed analysis of it with the objective of showing that the relativistic position taken by both Stuart, and Dworkin was wholly without merit. My response, though very direct and critical, was not personal or ad hominem. It did however use the very logical style that Stuart had implicitly criticized. Mark McElroy also responded on (04/21/04) to Stuart's post, in a lighter vein, but again in a manner that avoided personal attacks.

Robert Perey responded (04/21/04) to my post with both extreme brevity and incivility, saying simply: "Frig me!!!" I never answered his post. Stuart responded (04/21/04) to Mark and I with another lengthy post. The first part of it was a serious effort to engage with our point of view by critiquing a graphic white paper on epistemology we had previously cited. But about one-third of the way through his very long post, Stuart gave way to the most extensive expression of personal attacks, labeling and ad hominem argument yet seen in the group. Mark answered Stuart's post on 04/22/04, by taking his substantive arguments and replying to them in detail. He then responded to Stuart's attack on our style by pointing out that it was neither substantive nor based in a close analysis of what we said. Mark did not respond in kind to Stuart's personal attacks, but was very measured in his lengthy response. David Hawthorne responded to Mark with a post that involved an interpretive characterization of our views. Though his post was very well-written and much lighter in tone than Stuart's, and though it contained one substantive criticism about the views we expressed toward risk, It was, for the most part, every bit as much an exercise in labeling as Stuart's post.

I responded (04/22/04) to Stuart's post with another lengthy analysis. I treated his post seriously and did not reply to his attacks in kind. Stuart responded to my post by taking our exchange off-line. We then exchanged views over the next day and-a-half until we developed a good mutual understanding and came to a stopping place. Later, on the 24th, Stuart had occasion to write me again to comment on a response I'd made to someone else. This time we corresponded until the 27th, and again ended our correspondence after coming to a good mutual understanding.

Meanwhile, Greg Timbrell contributed a post (04/22/04), part of which, contained "a comment on our list culture". The comment pointed out that the views expressed in the list were written in spare time, not meant to be perfect, informal, and hence always "provide opportunities for criticism." Greg then suggested we needed to remain balanced in criticism and to refrain from long, detailed and often boring examinations of every point made by a poster. Greg also pointed out that others may experience "angst" and may not contribute because they fear too close an analysis of their posts. In other words, Greg was saying that close logical analysis of the views expressed in the act-km community is in conflict with its norms.

I'll continue the story of the period of troubled participation in act-km 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, you’ll 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

12:20:12 AM    comment []

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