The Great KM Divide
November 28, 2007
Continuing with some reflections on, or occasioned by, "Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages" (see my earlier post), I found that the conclusion of the book introduced a new perspective on a topic that has bothered me (interested me) for quite some time.
Within the subject that travels under the banner of "knowledge management", there appears to be a rather resilient division of opinion. On one side there are those who associate KM with best practices (troublesome though the term is), documents, and what we might call explicit knowledge - artifacts where "management" can be used with some meaning and where technology can defensibly be said to play a useful role. On the other side are those who associate "knowledge", or its most interesting and valuable manifestations, with the tacit, the inarticulable, the personal, and the dynamically social. These two camps don't generally see eye-to-eye on anything and indeed rarely have anything good to say about each other. Hence the title - the Great KM Divide.
I have found this divide to be a distraction and the animosity expressed by one or the other camp to be utterly counter-productive. I have ventured into the debate with a paper albeit it has not been widely circulated and therefore has not provoked much in the way of responses. The paper, entitled "The Anatomy of Knowledge" and introduced in a later post, does come down largely on the side of emphasizing "explicit knowledge" as being a key area of interest for KM although it does endeavour to establish a framework wherein it is productive to talk about the dynamic between the public artifacts we call "knowledge" and the world of decisions, actions and tacit contributors. Interestingly, readers who are inclined to foreground explicit knowledge artifacts have strongly endorsed the paper while those hailing from the opposing school declare indifference and refer to its definition of knowledge as constraining, insensitive and inadequate. The divide reveals itself, somewhat as expected.
In the concluding pages of "Glut", Alex Wright draws the distinction between two domains - one associated with orality and the other with the written text (literacy). The closing of the book accords the pride of place to the former, the domain of the oral tradition and the dynamic flow of communication amongst people. This domain is associated with the "heart" and not surprisingly it is elevated above the domain of the "head", linked as that is with the somewhat colder written text. This hierarchical preference of speech over text is not too surprising given the general leaning of current opinion in favour of the more tacit side of knowledge. (I actually suspect that this leaning of opinion is in reality a form of compensation against the gnawing recognition that the world of explicit and manageable knowledge is in fact gaining so much ground in the modern world, in terms of its causal importance, as to be approaching hegemony.)
Jacques Derrida had, along with others, drawn up the argument that the written text is not properly seen as merely "frozen speech", an inert remnant of what was once a much more vital utterance. While the reality of it may in fact argue the opposite, it has been a long-standing rhetorical position, and frequently an ardently held belief, to claim that real-time speech, especially when exchanged face-to-face (F2F), is the purest and most complete form of communication and that everything else is a pale reflection. This is in fact a topic from which none of us will escape unless we move on.
The epiphany that occurred to me in reading the closing pages of "Glut" was that this duality between orality and textuality aligns very, very neatly with the framework I was playing with in my paper on the Anatomy of Knowledge.
What I was most interested in doing in this paper was formalizing the great divide and establishing separate domains of inquiry for both knowledge (articulated so as to become a public artifact open to criticism and therefore capable of evolution) and judgment and action (the realm in which people make decisions, collectively and individually, take action and experience consequences). The former is inescapably more abstract and persistent while the latter is inescapably the world of "lived experience", of immediate reality.
I found that in reading "Glut: Mastering Information through the Ages" I was introduced to a new way of looking at my own artifact, the framework I call "the knowledge dynamic". Now the tension between the domains of the oral and the written is not entirely new to me, reading this book brought some of these considerations back into focus. And now that I look at the great divide and the chasm that separates the warring factions within the KM community I see that the two camps hail from different sides of my own framework. The oral domain accords with the hierarchy of judgment, action and experience, while that of the written articulation is associated with the pyramid of data, information and knowledge.
Although I don't think too much of this is evidenced in the book "Glut" itself, some aspects of the topic certainly are. More importantly, the book provided useful inputs to my thought process and for this I am thankful. Not all books do this. But when a book helps to provoke constructive thinking then it can be said to have really done its job. It is a concrete demonstration that, while the written text plays a different role than that of the spoken word, both can have their effects.
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