Complexity and Knowledge Management Navigators…
The content of this blog comes from an article under development: ‘Knowledge Management – The enemy within: Overcoming Technology’s fifth column’
We’re developing this latest article to look at the dominance of technology within the KM field, and the perception that KM ‘is’ technology. This led to an enquiry into the foundational theories of our field and Nonaka in particular.
This blog is a summary of some of the work we’re doing in this area and is designed as a conversation starter for those who are interested in the foundationalist aspects of our field…***please take a look at the comments if you get a chance, some thought provoking responses***
You can’t speak of KM without being aware of Nonaka and his collaborative work with Takeuchi (et al.). His SECI (Socialisation, Externalisation, Combination and Internalisation) spiral of knowledge creation is probably the best known KM model on the face of the planet. The language of SECI has transcended our situated realities to form a thread of commonality between practitioners and academics. Nonaka is the most cited theorist in the KM field. People speak of the ‘fathers’ of KM and cite theorists such as Sveiby or Drucker, or practitioners such as Buckman. However, if we are to speak of the most influential theorist then we have to speak of Nonaka and his various collaborateurs. His place in the pantheon of KM history is guaranteed, but, if we pull back the curtain, does the substance live upto the myth?
Over the last twelve months I have been lucky enough to attend international conferences in Newcastle, Paris, Pecs and Hong Kong. In each case papers and key-notes have been delivered that have extensively used Nonaka’s various works in a foundationalist manner, accepting them as an unquestioned bedrock for justification of research in the field. My problem is that before enrolling in this burgeoning network of belief I feel the need to question the belief structure and this is where my problems start.
Peeling back the layers of Nonaka’s work on the SECI model it beomes possible to view the person behind the theory. For me, it is the underlying assumptions or the nature of the researcher that are cause for concern. KM is a field of dualisms: Explicit/Tacit – Theory/Practice – Knowledge as an object/Knowledge as a process – Technology/People – Individual/Collective – East/West. Nonaka cleverly presents us a potential solution, but at the same time asks us to put on emerald glasses. He suspends our understanding of reality, as described by Polanyi, having us believe that knowledge can exist outside of the body human, at which point it can be manipulated as an object. Fair enough, but how does he justify and reason this?
His justification appears to be fractured at best. Nonaka defines knowledge as the ‘justification of true belief’, a traditional positivist definition of the concept. The positivist definition of knowledge lends itself to the idea of knowledge as a product, something that can be removed from the person human; a closed system where the world does not answer back. In building his model upon a positivist foundation he, perhaps unwittingly, opened the KM field to technology solutions that to this day often negate the human aspect of KM processes. This idea of knowledge as an object appears to privelege ‘explicit’ knowledge, which is championed by technology-centric theorists who combine Nonaka’s work with that of others, such as Lyotard, who believe ‘explicit’ or ‘technical’ knowledge to have value over tacit knowledge – a popular view with positivists who prioritise propositional knowledge or ‘episteme’. Nonaka attempts to extricate himself from his own positivist stance by declaring that tacit knowledge has a higher value over explicit knowledge, but it is buried in his research and is overawed by the Yellow Brick Road that leads in the opposite direction.
Through slight of mind Nonaka then uses Polanyi’s work on explicit and tacit knowledge to justify his spiral of interactions between the two states in the knowledge creation process. However, Nonaka fails to tell us that Polanyi believes tacit knowledge to be inexpressible, existing only in the minds of the person human. Instead we are led to believe that the simple process of ‘Externalisation’ will transform tacit to explicit knowledge; a process that is described by many theorists as the generation of new information, not knowledge.
Perhaps I’m just picking. What damage can possibly be caused by such a simple slight of mind? In presenting knowledge this way Nonaka paints a picture of knowledge as a complicated process where variables can be managed in a linear manner – further justification for those who proffer technology-centric KM solutions. This seems far removed from the chaotic interaction of variables that coalesce in the socialisation knowledge creation process. (To clarify theorists such as Radford see complex processes as being rooted in chaos were ‘unforseen elements within the system emerge from interactions between other elements or variables and cannot therefore be taken into account until such interactions have occurred’ (p. 265)). This builds a picture of KM that has been seized upon by technology-centric approaches that could be said to have subjected the field to fads.
Then there’s Nonaka the scientist. How does he know that SECI actually works? How has he helped us as practitioners to operationalise it? Nonaka states that global organisations have learned from Japanese production principles and therefore the world must also learn from Japanese knowledge creation principles. Sounds good, but what about the successful Japanese production and management processes, such as Quality Circles, that have failed to successfully migrate into Western Society, finding themselves consigned to the global scrap heap of management fads. Knowledge is said to be historically, culturally, socially and geographically bound; how does Nonaka’s work sit outside of the ‘Eastern’ reality it was developed in? I’ve already suggested Nonaka to be a positivist by nature, but where is the deductive research to support his own model? It seems to me that he has produced a theory, albeit one based on what could be seen as slight of mind, but where are the case studies? What about aspects of KM or knowledge creation that appear to be missing in the SECI spiral; the progression of knowledge to knowing being a good example? Knowledge use, which puts knowledge into action to produce knowing doesn’t appear to exist, which would appear to be a critical issue for organisatons looking to operationalise Nonaka’s work.
Much like the Wizard of Oz, Nonaka seems to have provided emerald glasses for the KM field. The problem is that the field is failing to provide practitioner satisfaction. Something is wrong and theorists such as Nonaka, whilst providing a vision for a solution, are part of the problem.
Perhaps it is time to take off the glasses, take a fresh look at reality and bring new eyes to an old landscape?