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Sunday, July 04, 2004

Junction of the Thames and the Medway (J. W. M. Turner, 1807)
The Poverty of Communitarianism: Act-KM -- The Road to Incident Two: Part One

When the April theory exchanges ended on the 27th, interaction in act-km wound down for awhile. Over the next few weeks it primarily consisted of announcements and exchanges of information. Subjects included social network analysis, people taking intellectual capital with them when they retired, and organizational forgetting. Exchanges involving a greater degree of disagreement began again on May 17th, and evolved to Incident Two on May 25-27, after a high density of postings during the days leading up to May 25th. I'll describe these exchanges in a number of blogs, both to provide enough detail to give a feeling for the content of the exchanges, and also to provide a basis for analysis of the style of political interaction and knowledge claim evaluation in the community.


Maureena Lockyer-Benzie, a newcomer to KM, asked (05/17/04) whether "the definition (AS5037) is the most appropriate. Other definitions would be appreciated." AS 5037, is the consensus-based definition of KM offered by the Australian Standards organization.

David Williams began the responses with a definition (05/17/04) based on the idea of an organizational process that uses knowledge and intellectual assets to generate organizational value. Later on that day, Patrick Lambe responded by referring to exchanges on the same subject in October 2003 that generated a lot of heat. He also said that a phenomenological definition of KM is that asking for a definition of it will produce a fight but no clarity in the concept, and he then offered the following view:

"A standard is a terribly useful thing for that very purpose - we can just pretend it's true and go about our normal business."

In other words, a standard definition is good because it resolves conflict, but not because it really introduces any clarity into the subject, or helps us to delimit its scope, or represents an addition to our knowledge.

On May 18th, Georges de Wailly stated that he agreed with Mark, and went on to state that KM is the activity of getting "the right information to the right person, in the right time, and in the right context". He also characterized KM as a "logistics of information." I responded to Maureena also by stating that there was no consensus in KM on a definition and referred her to a paper by Mark and myself discussing the issue. I also called her attention to a recent blog of ours on a Governance-based approach to KM, and pointed out that it was in conflict with AS 5037. Mark then responded to Maureena and Georges and took the position that KM definitions are "utterly political and counter-productive” and that we should not be concerned with definitions, but rather with purposes and value propositions. He then want on to criticize AS 5037 for making KM's alignment with strategy a definitional requirement, a move he characterized as the "strategy exception error".

Jeff Popova-Clark (still on 05/18/04) responded to my post on the Governance-based approach by reading our blog post and then by stating that he agreed that KM should not be subservient to short- and medium-term goals of organizations, but that it had to be subservient to the long-term goals because they are "equivalent to an organisation's very purpose for existence.   .   ," and if  ".  .  .  KM is not subservient to the organisation's purpose for existence then KM is using organisation resources for purposes other than the purpose of the organisation." Bala Pillai, next, supported Mark's post on definition, and Kate Andrews responded to Mark by saying that her experience indicated that organizations are relaxed about the idea that "knowledge processes should align with organisational intent." She also expanded on this point, ending by asking, reasonably: "I wonder if, when we focus on practice, some of the heat goes out of these topics?"

Early on May 19th, I responded to Kate Andrews by agreeing that sometimes the heat goes out of this topic in practice. I also asked her whether it wasn't true that if KM is normatively defined as needing to be in alignment with management strategy, that this provides a normative foundation for Management to constrain KM from encouraging norms and practices of critical evaluation of Management strategy? Next, I replied to Jeff Popova-Clark, attempting to place his remarks in a still broader perspective and pointing out that the Governance-based approach contended that KM should be aligned with the goals and objectives emerging from Governance, whether long-, medum, or short-term, rather than with the goals, objectives, and strategy emerging from Management.  Kate Andrews then responded to my earlier reply by reiterating her point of view that KM should be aligned with organizational intent and that in her experience KM was dedicated to change and not the status quo.

Dave Snowden (05/19/04) next added a civil post objecting to the either/or orientation of the conversation up to that point with respect to both strategy/KM and KM definitions. He emphasized the importance for KM success of it being in alignment with corporate strategy, and also the role of definitions of starting or staging points for further development of ideas. He wrote about the co-evolution of concept and practice and presented the view that cases that are not specifically generated to test a theory, cannot provide support for it. Following Dave's post, I responded to Kate Andrews by agreeing with the substance of her post, but I also pointed out that her reply had not, in fact, addressed my two questions.

Later that day, Mark McElroy responded to Dave Snowden's post. He agreed with Dave's point that for KM to be a success, Management needs to take it seriously; but also pointed out that if KM is mandated by Governance, Management will be required to take it seriously. He went on to make the point, in contrast to Dave's strong implication, that there is plenty of evidence supporting the idea that Governance-based KM may work, and that there is also much evidence in recent corporate behavior that Management strategy-based KM does not work very well.

The next post, by myself, at once responded to the first post on definitions by Mark McElroy, an earlier post by David Williams, as well as one by Patrick Lambe. The thrust of it was to characterize definitions as elevator speeches that we could (a) accept by convention, or (b) view as synthetic statements that might be false. I illustrated the view that definitions are synthetic statements by critiquing David Williams's offering, and also by applying that view in relation to standards and Patrick's view that standards are a convenient way to avoid conflict over key concepts. I also referred the group to a recent blog post of mine explaining my view on definitions. In the next post on definitions and standards (still on 05/19), I responded to Dave Snowden's post on these questions. I agreed with much in his post, as indicated in my response to Mark, but said that I thought that the AS 5037 definition of KM was off the mark because it excluded Governance-based approaches. I then discussed the clear difference of opinion on the merits of the Governance-based approach to KM, but indicated that we had reached the end of argument on this point in previous exchanges, in my book with Mark, and in recent posts on my blog site. Finally, I indicated puzzlement at Dave's reference to "linear definition" in his post, while endorsing the notion of co-evolution of theory and practice.

Bill Hall then contributed a post in which he complimented the forum for the conversation on the 19th about definitions and alternative approaches to KM, and then proceeded to discuss organizations viewed as CASes and the implications of this view for KM. Referring to my work and Mark's, Bill indicated that working independently of us, " but from the same broad epistemological base provided by Karl Popper's later works .    .    . I have come to very much the same conclusions as they have about the roles and practice of KM in organisations." Bill also indicated that he thought the majority of the difficulties people have with our views is paradigmatic in nature and that he hoped that papers he was working on would bridge the communications gap. Megan Smith then offered some comments relating Gary Hamel's views on deep organizational change and innovation to the comments on organizational purposes made by Jeff Popova-Clark. She asked for comments on Hamel's emphasis on widespread employee participation in developing innovations and strategy. Mark quickly responded to Megan, pointing out that he very much agreed with Hamel and that macroinnovation was about implementing ideas about innovation very similar to Hamel's.


Kate Andrews (still on the 19th) contributed a very short response to Mark, in which she asked:

"I wonder if others see the irony in eschewing KM definitions and standards, and advocating for diversity at the same time as characterising a strategy alignment view as 'not to be taken seriously' and 'unsustainable'?"

I responded to Kate quickly, saying:

"To eschew standards and favor diversity doesn't mean that one can't have a position of one's own, and be very critical of some alternative positions. It simply means that one must be committed to the ideas that one may be wrong, and that KM is still sufficiently young to warrant a great deal of caution in committing to standards that have not yet stood the test of time and criticism."

Until this point, the conversation begun with Maureena Lockyer-Benzie's post asking about definitions had been conducted in a very civil way focusing primarily on substance. It was largely devoid of personal attacks, ad hominems, or labeling, and had not exhibited any hints of political communitarianism.

At this point Greg Timbrell posted a response to Kate Andrews's last post. He said:

"I feel a need to respond to your post in Haiku

You speak your wise thoughts
A philosopher responds
All is lost"

And then he proceeded to inform the group of the Haiku form. In the context of my response to Kate and the back and forth between us, I think this may be seen as the first instance of labeling to occur in the course of the discussion. A number of Haiku posts, which I will not review here, followed Greg's post and proceeded in parallel with the theory discussion. One of their functions seemed to be to provide an outlet for unease or frustration over the increasing density and intensity of the theory discussion

The next important theory post was from Robert Kay, who responded to my post responding to Mark McElroy, Patrick Lambe, and David Williams. Robert referred to his experience as a member of the committee producing AS 5037, and said:

"Do any us believe that the definition in the Standard is the absolute truth on the matter - not to my knowledge. Do any of us believe we could come up with a definition that would satisfy everyone - not really. This is why in the final Standard there will be a statement alerting readers to the fact that there are multiple definitions. The definitions people use are going to be related to the context they work in, their personal histories and the histories of the contexts in which they are undertaking action - amongst other things. Consequently any definition is by definition going to be incomplete (this is not the same as false or incorrect). This is also why the Standard is intended as an informative document - not a prescriptive one."

The exchanges on definitions and standards continued on May 20th. The first post on that day to address itself to these issues was by Dave Snowden who responded to both my posts and Mark's. Dave explained what he meant by "linear definition", but without explaining why the term "linear" was properly applied. In the process he asserted again that it wasn't important whether strategy preceded KM or vice versa since these would interact. He then went on to say that he thought that our view on Governance was "naïve". But in using that adjective he did not merely "label" our view, but proceeded to explain why he thought it was naive: specifically because in most organizations Executive Management has its way with Boards anyway. The implication of this is, I suppose, that it doesn't really matter if KM is located in the Governance or the Management function. He then reiterated a previous point he had made about whether cases not developed to test a model should be used to support it. After a paragraph of argument he concluded: "Retrospective coherence is not 'evidence' that can prove a theory, it's an indicator of a possible new experiment."

I'll continue my account of the road to incident 2 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

6:07:53 PM    comment []

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