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Friday, July 09, 2004

Clouds at Sunset

The Poverty of Communitarianism: Act-KM -- The Road to Incident Two: Part Two

I'll continue my account of the road to incident two by describing further group interaction on May 20, 2004, a very busy day of exchanges.

Sharper Disagreements

Stuart Kay then entered the discussion with a lengthy, entirely civil, contribution centered around a fictional illustrative example entitled "Lost in Translation". After relating the example, he said:

"So where does this leave us? It seems to me that it leaves us at the point that KM is both a governance and a strategic alignment issue.

'Knowledge' itself is critical to the success of any organisation ('knowledge' is an integral part of governance). KM as a discipline, or a 'knowledge organisation' within an organisation, is only 'necessary' if essential to the survival of the broader organisation; if not 'necessary' then it is 'useful' to the extent that:

- knowledge sharing within the organisation is not optimal; and
- the benefits of the KM function / knowledge organisation outweigh its costs.

Is there, then, in the debate on this list a simple misunderstanding? Is one group talking about clever use (management) of 'knowledge' (implicitly and naturally integral to governance; and necessary for organisational adaptiveness), whilst another group is talking about the separately identified functional process of 'knowledge management' (an explicit component of the function of governance)? Is it really a difference in conceptual paradigm or is it in the shift of knowledge processing from the implicit to the explicit, or vice versa, that the difference in views arises?"

The next relevant post was my reply to Robert Kay's earlier response. I expressed appreciation of the standard committee's recognition that there are multiple definitions of KM and that their own was not absolute truth. My reply then focused on presenting various questions in order to confront Robert with the difficulties in his position that the "standard" definition was merely "informative" and not prescriptive. I explained that if it was not prescriptive, but was informative, it had to be descriptive. But if it was descriptive how could it be a standard, and why was it not true or false? I also replied to Robert Kay's argument that we should do standards now, by saying that I didn't think the choice was between doing standards now and waiting for some distant day when everyone will agree on what KM is. Rather, I said, we could just wait (say 5-10 years) until we have more general agreement on important principles and concepts.

Dave Snowden responded to Stuart Kay's post with an expression of approval for his illustrative example. Raymond Cheung responded to Dave's earlier post with the observation that our discussion had lost track of the original query and with request for simplification of the whole discussion and specifically for others to provide simple definitions of "knowledge", "management" and "knowledge management." Next, I responded to Dave Snowden's "naïve" post by pointing out that:

"We all know that Management has great power in organizations. The issue here is whether Governance-based KM can moderate that a bit by creating an independent center of power in the organization and introducing a more Open Enterprise in the knowledge processing realm. We say it can, you say it can't. But your arguments just above don't really speak to that question."

I then proceeded to express agreement with his point on "retrospective coherence," and I agreed that corroboration was needed for theories, and not merely support.

I next replied to Stuart Kay's post, by agreeing with some of it, but also disagreeing at various specific points. I summarized my discussion by saying:

"I think Mark and I are talking about both general adaptiveness and about formal structures that should be subordinate to Governance, but not to Management. And it is because we are concerned about adaptiveness that we favor the Governance-based approach. In my view, once again, KM is a function that is always present in human systems. In its informal state it is not subordinate to management and its strategy. When we institutionalize KM by establishing formal knowledge organizations, the question arises, "where shall KM be located in the formal organizational structure?"

Our answer is that it should be located within Governance because:

High quality knowledge processing resulting in high quality knowledge in use is of vital importance for all organizational functions, and KM is for creating high quality knowledge processing. Just because, as you have shown, other organizational functions are more vital than KM for immediate survival, Management will generally be biased against the KM function, constraining it in various ways over time. This is likely to result in lower quality knowledge for the organization as a whole, making it less adaptive than it otherwise would be. To prevent this, we must recognize the conflict of interest between Management and high quality KM and entrust oversight of it to a function that is less involved in day-to-day concerns than Management, and more involved with the longer-term fate of the organization. That function is Governance."

Jeff Popova-Clark responded to my response to Robert Kay by making the point that "the Governance-based approach to KM (as described by your paper) is consistent with KM being aligned with strategy (i.e. long term strategy = purpose of organisational existence - see my previous post)." He also pointed out that "a definition does not need to attempt to be "the truth". What it needs to be is functionally useful. A definition can be merely an agreed (but otherwise arbitrary) standard by which everyone agrees to adhere." Mark McElroy (still on 05/20/04), responded to the "naïve" charge in Dave's earlier post with a lengthy message whose challenging flavor I can best convey with the following quote:

"Naïve is it? I see. Is it naïve to say that boards are elected by stockholders? Is it naïve to say that boards are accountable to their stockholders? And to regulators as well? Is it naïve to say that CEOs are hired by boards? Is it naïve to say that boards are meant to hold CEOs accountable? Is it naïve to say that stockholders expect them to do so? Is it naïve to say that boards owe their stockholders a fiduciary duty to exercise oversight over the affairs of the organization?"

The remainder of Mark's post was full of other sharp rhetorical and sarcastic questions and other comments that expressed sharp disapproval of Dave's views. It also conveyed the sense that Mark was responding to a perceived insult in Dave's characterization of our view as naïve.

Robert Kay followed Mark's response to Dave, by responding to my previous response to him. Robert indicated he would not try to resolve our differences on standards, which were unresolvable, and he repeated his views that AS 5037 could be used as a starting point for learning. He then proceeded to argue that most of my points seem to go back to requiring that definitional standards be true, and that he couldn't understand that because sometimes I seemed to agree with him that there is no absolute truth about these things. He then asserted that standards could not be absolutely true because they were incomplete. I followed Robert's post with an answer to Raymond Cheung, referring him to one of my blog posts.  Stuart Kay then responded to Mark's response to Dave by asking: "Are you suggesting that good KM in a governance model (or any other model) will prevent dishonest people, or people with political agendas, from lying, cheating and stealing?"  Stuart also responded to my post saying: "Mostly I think we are in loud agreement." He then proceeded to comment on a few points. First, he claimed that a general statement Mark and I had made in our paper on the Governance approach was not universally valid. He also argued that many organizations were like his own in that even though KM was aligned with Management-based strategy it was also possible for it have input into strategy.

After Stuart's post I replied to Robert Kay. I stated that I thought we had come to a stopping place in our exchange except for one point. Then I replied to his contention that I seem to require "truth" in definitions by saying that I only require that they survive testing and criticism and thus not be demonstrably false. I ended by summarizing my views on the problems of AS 5037. Next, I also replied to Jeff Popova-Clark's post. I began by pointing out that the Governance-based approach is consistent with the long-term strategy of enhancing organizational adaptive capacity. But it is not necessarily consistent with strategy as formulated by Management, which may well be inconsistent with that goal, and I reiterated that it was this point that Mark and I were making. I then answered his view that definitions need not be true, saying that nominal definitions were conventional, but that real definitions such as KM definitions said something about the world and therefore should not be false. I applied this idea to the AS 5037 and KMCI definitions of KM pointing out that AS 5037 was surely false because it excluded Governance-based KM.

In the next blog post I'll report on the exchanges of May 21st and beyond.


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

4:40:41 PM    comment []

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