EPISODE 4 - Organizations Develop Minds of their Own

Foundation Problems in Organizational Theory and Epistemology

The discipline of organizational knowledge management grew out of the need to better manage all kinds of information207 belonging to large government and commercial organizations, and to use this accumulated information to better manage the organizations themselves. References to organizational knowledge management are often abbreviated to the acronym "KM". Here I will use the acronym OKM to emphasize that aspects of organizational knowledge transcend the sum of the knowledge held by individuals claiming allegiance to the organization and to further differentiate the domain of the OKM discipline from that of Information Science, which in my interpretation exists primarily to help individuals retrieve persistent knowledge from World 3.

Although only recently named as a discipline, OKM has roots in management science, electronic data processing and information management, and has grown comparably to the way the discipline of information science discussed in the previous episode evolved to codify and manage scientific and academic knowledge in books, journals and libraries. Where OKM is concerned, manual, and variously automated electromechanical, electronic and microelectronic information processing technologies provide increasingly powerful tools to manage and aggregate data and add to its epistemic value. As informationop. cit. processing systems increase in power, they are able to generate epistemically higher quality outputs, and to begin their work with inputs that also have increasingly greater epistemic quality. The increasing pervasiveness and epistemic power of these tools within organizations has to some degree forced the establishment and evolutionary development of data processing, information systems and knowledge management disciplines (and associated paradigm shifts) along the data, information, knowledge, ... power axis.

Compared to information science, evolved primarily to assist individual researchers (privately or as members of organizations) access large repositories of knowledge recorded in libraries and electronic formats, organizational knowledge management focuses on knowledge related issues specifically relating to corporate entities comprising many individuals and relating specifically to the corporate benefits of the knowledge. The impact of these revolutions in cognitive technologies on the management of knowledge used by these kinds of organizations is the main subject of this episode.

The story of OKM is not simple to tell - even assuming that I understand it myself. I have only recently begun to confront the academic discipline from my own unusual points of view in evolutionary biology and technical documentation systems analysis and design. I have found that the the disciplines of OKM and organization theory in general are in the midst of unfinished cognitive revolutions driven by continuing technological revolutions enabled by Moore's Law. For example, Wilson (2002) examines the origins and basis of the discipline from an "information systems" paradigm and claims that the discipline is faddish "nonsense" and little more than a "bandwagon [that] lacks wheels". Telling the story of what is happening where organizational knowledge is concerned is complicated further by paradigmatic confusions in the terminology itself.

It appears to me that significant confusions exist in (1) organization theory or understanding what organizations are beyond a mere collection of people claiming to be members, (2) concepts of knowledge within the OKM discipline, and (3) understanding how organizational knowledge grows through "learning" (i.e., processes of organizational adaptation). Conceptual barriers to discourse arising from the existence of two or more competing paradigms in each of these areas make analysis and discussion of the literature difficult.

What follows is my personal attempt to map a road through or around these confusions to lay the groundwork for discussing past, present and potential future impacts of revolutionary cognitive technologies on organizations. Given that I do not have an unlimited time to spend on this project, I make no claim to have reviewed or even identified all of the potentially relevant literature on the subjects treated. I also make no claim that the conceptual map I provide is the best or even the only map that could have been created. Finally, others may have created similar road maps that I am simply unaware of.

Semantic issues

OKM extends the boundaries of information science as developed in the library community (Corrall 1998) and the information systems discipline (e.g., Wilson 2002), but in a ways that are sometimes incommensurable. Up to this point, I have focussed on how individuals build, access and use knowledge in relationship to the worlds around them. This discussion has exclusively used the framework and vocabulary of a Popperian paradigm of evolutionary epistemology based on continually testing assertions to "know" against the reality of these external worlds. In my Counter Subject, I extended the Popperian derived epistemology using concepts derived from Boyd's OODA loop and the revolution in military affairs.

However, when we begin to consider organizational or corporate knowledge, we need to base concepts of knowledge and its uses on a broader and clearer understanding of different forms and categories of knowledge than we have faced at the individual level, and consider whether the knowledge in question is held by individuals or is located in higher level of the organization as a whole. As alluded to above, any attempt to combine ideas from the paradigms deriving from several disciplines and subdisciplines may be incomprehensible technobabble unless underlying semantic issues are first brought to the surface and discussed. In the present work I am combining ideas from OKM and the related disciplines of organizational theory and strategic management along with cognitive psychology and my own disciplines of organismic and evolutionary biology.

Epistemology in an Organizational Framework

Even the term epistemology is subject to various interpretations when discussing OKM. For example I will reference papers by Venzin et. al. (1998), Sveiby (2001), von Krogh and Roos (1995, 1995a, etc.) and others as valuable sources for defining some of the organizational paradigms used, but these authors use the term "epistemology" in a sense corresponding to the concept of a Kuhnian paradigm as I have defined and used it in this work. My usage of epistemology refers to the philosophical theory of knowledge and the means for justifying or valuing claims to know, they use the term as a paradigm for how organizations acquire knowledge in a framework of organizational theory.

Beyond simple semantics, there are also a number of paradigmatic issues and confusions relating to what organizations are as entities that transcend the collective abilities of the people that are associated with the organization at any point in time. These need to be identified and resolved. Different theories of the organization will be reviewed and discussed at some length to form a foundation for exploring the impact of revolutionary cognitive technologies on organizations. Some of the understandings I present here appear to be original with me, and my intention is to explore them more fully from an academic point of view in other works once I have finished the present project.

In order to let authors define paradigmatically meaningful terms in their own words and contexts, and not filter these definitions through my own often variant understanding, I quote extensively from the other works.

Introduction to a Theory of Organizational Knowledge