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Wednesday, June 30, 2004


The Poverty of Communitarianism:

Act-KM -- Troubled Participation: Part Two

In my last post I described part of the period of troubled participation in the act-km group during April 2004. In this post, I'll pick up the story of act-km and cover the time period through the end of April 2004.

The Expression of Angst and the Temporary Denouement (continued)

At about the same time as Greg Timbrell's post on act-km List Culture, Paul James contributed a post in response to our replies to Stuart Kay which said:

"Oh no! Stuart is being attacked by the KMCI gang again!

Joe and Mark, do us all a favour and take all of your discourse and diatribe off line! Please."

And on the 23rd, John Hargreaves said:

You have struck a chord with me here Greg. I think what you describe is similar to situations where people are 'afraid' to ask questions, concerned that they might appear naive and open to ridicule. One way of looking at such concerns is that people are worried about their egos taking a hit.

How then would it be if egos were able to be set aside, would sharing and communication be enhanced? And as a result, would learning and knowledge generation occur more easily?"

On April 23rd Mark responded to David Hawthorne's post, but not in kind. Mark avoided personal comments and ad hominems and ended by asking David what his alternative epistemology to correspondence was. Paul McDowell then responded to the increased level of tension kicked off by Stuart's first post by asking of both Mark and I:

"Given your earnest reply, and your recognition of the reactions to your interventions, then it would seem logical to wonder why you continue to use a style of communication which appears to elicit this response?"

David Hawthorne responded to Mark's post on April 25th. He answered Mark's questions without recourse to the characterizations he had engaged in earlier, and gave his views on correspondence and on Varela's views which he interpreted as opposed to correspondence. Mark responded to David early on April 26th and explained that there was nothing in David's account of Varela that precluded correspondence or suggested a retreat from reason, rather than a retreat from empiricism. I followed with an answer to Paul McDowell's question, saying that I continued to use my unpopular style of communication because I needed to exhibit a style of critical exchange that conflicted with the non-criticalist practice prevalent in the group. And that I needed to do that to illustrate practices in communities of inquiry "in which competing knowledge claims are subjected to continuous testing, error elimination, and knowledge claim evaluation in hopes of getting closer to the truth."

My response to Paul elicited the off-line response from Stuart Kay I mentioned earlier and began a lengthy discussion of the pros and cons of this style. Mark also responded to Paul and, I think, expressed our joint perspective very well in these words, commenting on criticalism and the group's reaction to our practice of it:

”But I am no less sensitive and sympathetic to those who find it disconcerting or uncomfortable. I really am very sorry about that, but I also think the criticalist approach is easily mistaken for antagonism for its own sake, or pedantry run amuck. It is none of that. I urge you and others to give us the benefit of the doubt here, and to listen only to what we are saying and not to what you think we might otherwise be doing.

I also urge you to be more critical yourself (selves) in what you hear from us and from others who are critical of our approach. Over the past few days, for example, we weathered much criticism that in fact consisted mostly of sweeping generalizations about our style of inquiry and debate, with virtually no substance or evidence behind it. Here’s the pattern that often unfolds; watch for it: (1) Mark and/or Joe critique an idea and offer their own in response, (2) some back and forth follows, (3) some brave soul finally comes out and condemns us for our style of criticism and heaps sweeping generalizations upon us, (4) we respond with a request for examples of the crimes we have been accused of (“semantic attacks,” etc.), (5) we patiently wait for a response, and (6) no such examples come forward.

Thus, what we have here is really not so much a dispute over the substance of our ideas, but with the substance of our style instead. It’s as if the mark of a successful list serv has less to do with the quality of the knowledge we produce and share than with whether or not we approve of each others’ style of discourse and tolerate a kind of ‘nobody’s ever wrong and everybody’s right’ ethic. I really am very sorry to say, however, that some claims are just simply false, and we do ourselves, one and all, a profound disservice by carrying on as though they weren’t. And to interpret every disclosure of falsity as a personal attack is to cripple the learning enterprise. How can we possibly improve the quality of our knowledge if every revelation of falsity is greeted with hostility in response?

And so I think in critiquing the criticalist attitude as a basis for discourse in a list serv like this, such critics ought to be held to account for the alternative they would have us all embrace. Let us practice what we preach here, right now. As knowledge managers, what epistemology, if not criticalism, should we be practicing amongst ourselves as we engage in knowledge processing on this list? For those of you who reject criticalism, what alternative would you have us embrace, and why should we do so?"

Bill Hall then responded (04/26/04) to Mark's post discussing his work on Maturana and Varela's theory and the relationship of their work to Popper's and to the correspondence theory of truth. Bill explained that acceptance of Maturana and Varela's views on the construction of reality by organisms, is not inconsistent with acceptance of Popper's views on correspondence. Bill's post was followed by my own response to David's post, which explained the closeness of approach of our views and his. David then responded to Mark, with more clarification of views on Maturana and Varela. He also expressed his view that he finds my work and Mark's useful for innovation, because it focuses on self-generated barriers that may get in the way, but not on learning, because it doesn't work for him when he has to "understand events as they are unfolding."

I responded (04/26/04) to David Hawthorne's answer to Mark by explaining more of the perspective underlying our work and by showing that these perspectives were very close to his own. My primary emphasis was to show that many of our assumptions were constructivist in character, but that these did not preclude a correspondence epistemology and a criticalist theory of evaluation. David responded quickly on the same day, thanked me for my post, and continued to take issue with the idea that the search for true knowledge claims should be the regulative ideal in problem solving. His post proceeded to express his idea that criticalism was not adequate to deal with the dynamics of problem solving and creativity. I responded, late on the same day, by noting that the regulative ideal of truth as the goal of problem-solving was a motivator, and that that was its value. I also responded to the idea that criticalism was opposed to creativity by pointing out where it was useful in problem solving and referring David to my blog post entitled "All Life is problem Solving".

Mark responded to David as well, early on April 27th. He addressed David's claim that our work did not deal with the role of emergence in KM at some length. Mark indicated that from its beginning our work had been based in the theory of complexity and emergence, and he made reference to his web site, the Policy Synchronization Method (PSM), which is based on ideas of self-organization, and emergence, and our research. In brief, Mark documented that emergence "is one of the areas of work where we have perhaps gone further than anyone else in KM."

Fred Nickols continued posting on April 27th with the query:

"Last time I checked, the only way we know anything is by way of our senses. How is that reason and rationality are separate from our senses?"

Mark McElroy responded to Fred's post (04/27/04) by pointing out that we "sense with our senses" but we cannot know with them. To know we need to bring reason to bear to criticize and see whether what our senses are telling us is true.

Finally, I responded to Bill Hall's post of the day before on Maturana/Varela, Popper, and his own work integrating various streams of research. I supported Bill's views and related them to KMCI work and to other literature. I also pointed out that Maturana and Varela were constructivists rather than realists and that it was possible for people to both accept autopoiesis in living systems and to differ on epistemology.

The End for the Time Being

My post of April 27th ended the series of posts on theory. It had begun nearly a month before, in a discussion of Knowledge Management training, and ended in discussions of epistemology and their importance for KM. Many good exchanges had occurred during that time in the sense that posters had developed a much better understanding of the views of others. Many participants, according to their own statements, seemed to come close to agreement on some matters. And many others continued to disagree.

During the first period of exchange until April 20th, very little angst was publically expressed in the exchanges and personal attacks were minimal. But, evidently, a sense of frustration with the theory exchanges and the criticalist style of exchange, employing close logical analysis, practiced by Mark and I was building. Stuart Kay gave voice to that frustration in his post of April 20th. That post did not involve personal attacks, but a later post of his included a severe personal attack, and this was preceded by one by Robert Perey, and followed by others by Sylvia Marshall, and Paul James. Even David Hawthorne offered a post predominantly devoted to labeling the views of Mark and I. The conflicts with Stuart and David were worked out through continued exchange. In Stuart's case these were off-line exchanges with me. In David's they were online exchanges involving Mark, Bill Hall, David, and myself. Differences with many other members of the group: e.g., Robert Perey, Paul James, Sylvia Marshall, and Greg Timbrell, did not proceed to a conclusion, but would surface once again in May.

One of the primary questions raised by this period of interaction within act-km, is why posts by Mark and I created the angst they did among some members of the group? My posts were largely devoid of personal attacks and Mark's had remarkably few such expressions considering the volume of his posts. So what caused the problem? Given the posts of Greg Timbrell, Paul McDowell, other protesters and the off-line communications I received from Stuart Kay, I think the explanation lies in conflicting norms and practice, rather than in the subject matter of these posts, or in whether Mark or I were polite or not relative to a formal standard such as restricting our criticisms to views rather than people.

The practice that has developed in the act-km group over time is one of friendly exchange marked by no more than occasional and mildly critical comments on the views of others. In fact, the view had developed among many that there are many differing equally valid approaches to KM, and that it was wrong to claim that there was one absolute truth. Apparently the routine practice of exchange in act-km is a reflection of relativism, a form of justificationism that denies an objective external reality or criterion for truth, and regards all truth and certainty as personal, local, and ‘relative’ to an individual – i.e., anti-foundationalist, but not anti-justificationist. On the other hand, the practice of close and rigorous examination of people's messages and criticism of the logic of these messages is a new form of practice introduced into the group by Mark and I.

It is a practice that evidently threatens some participants, bores others, and introduces inconvenience for others who have to make their way through digests that are suddenly lengthy and hard to manage. The new practice angers these participants. From their point of view it does not bring important benefits, and it introduces the heavy cost of visible conflict into the group. They don't want to see it continue, and they don't think they need to tolerate it. So they move to sanction it. They do so by delivering messages using personal attacks, labeling, and ad hominems on-line, and by asking the moderator of the group to take action to bar those who wish to introduce the practices they oppose.

During April, the evidences of political communitarianism were not as visible, as they had been in December. The moderator did not get involved beyond his failure to moderate the personal attacks delivered by those frustrated by the new practices, which after all were themselves no more than the right of exercise of free and civil speech within the group. Stuart Kay's "Cat Among the Pigeons" post was not quite the call to arms that Serena Joyner's "Drowning Out the Little Voices" had been. Nevertheless, it was effective enough to call forth a considerable expression of disapproval of the new practice of close critical examination of posts. It also encouraged those in the group who thought that social sanctioning of the members introducing the new practices might be successful at some point in the future. We will see in future blog posts, that those who may have thought this way were quite right. It was only a matter of time until the opportunity to exercise community authority to remove the offending practices would present itself.


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

8:02:56 PM    comment []

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