From: HALL Bill [mailto:bill.hall@tenix.com] 
Sent: Tuesday, July 13, 2004 2:46 AM
To: kmci-Virtual-Chapter@yahoogroups.com
Cc: bill.hall@hotkey.net.au
Subject: RE: [kmci-Virtual-Chapter] Groupthink, the CIA, and KM: to solve the problem we need to know what it is



I'd like to float an idea here for some feedback that emerged from work I am doing on the roles of knowledge in autopoietic organizations (autopoiesis ~ self-production; see http://www.orgs-evolution-knowledge.net/Index/DocumentKMOrgTheoryPapers/Hall2003ManagingMaintKnowledgeinLargeEngiProjects.pdf; http://www.orgs-evolution-knowledge.net/Index/DocumentKMOrgTheoryPapers/Hall2003OrganizationalAutopoiesisKnowledgeManagement.pdf.


Background and Context

By way of some explanatory background for some ideas that might otherwise seem quite weird, I am an evolutionary biologist by training (PhD Harvard, 1973 - where one of my thesis advisors was Ernst Mayr, who has just passed his 100th birthday and still going strong - (Shermer, 2004), and I took the evolutionary biology course taught by Mayr and Steven J. Gould - e.g., see Gould, 2002). Although all of my graduate work was in biology, I started university as a physics student, and consequently I have had hands-on experience working with all generations of computer technology back to the hand-crank and electromechanical calculating machines.

I also spent two years in the last half of the 1970's studying scientific epistemology and scientific revolutions (see Hall, 1983) to understand communication difficulties I was having with peer reviewers who could not understand my approach to writing, and who eventually accused me of being "unscientific". Karl Popper's epistemology and Thomas Kuhn's (1962, 1970, 1977, 1983) ideas regarding the semantic incommensurability of different paradigms were my primary sources of understanding to explain the basis of my science and the communication difficulties. Paradigms are tacit world views that provide semantic frameworks for our vocabularies. They are learned tacitly within a discipline so intradisciplinary verbal communication is relatively unproblematic. On the other hand, where different paradigms influence semantic meanings of words, interdisciplinary communication can be quite difficult because the same words have very different semantic connections in the different disciplines. The issue is particularly difficult, because individuals' paradigms profoundly influence thinking but are normally completely invisible in normal discourse. Consequently, attempts to communicate between paradigms is often so uncomfortable and frustrating that they easily degenerate into name-calling and ad-hominem attacks.

For the last 23 years or so I have been working with computers in industry as a technical communicator, documentation and content analyst/manager, and most recently as a KM systems analyst. The last 14 of these years have been with Tenix Defence - Australia's largest defence contractor.

Because I have no formal training in knowledge management or systems analysis, I have always looked at organizations as if they were living things adapting and competing in a changing environment (the biological equivalents to systems analysis are systematics and ecology). In practical terms, the "biological" approach to understanding organizational knowledge has served me well, and accounts for my interest in autopoiesis - first proposed as a definition for what it means to be alive.

However, in 2000 I started to write a book on the coevolution of human cognition and cognitive technologies in response to paradigmatic "holy wars" raging on technical writing sites over the way new technologies were changing the nature of documents and writing (Application Holy Wars: A Fugue on the Theory of Knowledge). The first 2/3 of the book was very easy to write, but I encountered great difficulty and came to a halt trying to map academic knowledge management theory to my understanding of organizations and knowledge, until I understood that the issues with understanding were primarily paradigmatic.


Conflicting Paradigms in Knowledge Management

Knowledge management forums suffer the same kinds of flame wars I first encountered in the technical writing world, as exemplified by Mark McElroy's post http://finance.groups.yahoo.com/group/kmci-Virtual-Chapter/message/5216 on censorship in KM. Because knowledge management is a new field, practitioners have brought a large number of tacit paradigms into the field to create a virtual Tower of Babel. A subsequent post (Incommensurable paradigms in KM and KM holy wars) demonstrates the inability of most writers to deal with more than one paradigm in the one document. When I realized that the understanding problems I was having with the KM literature and a lot of the hot air I was seeing on the forums were based on paradigmatic differences, I tried to identify them. In my first list I identified conflicting paradigms ("views", "methodologies", "approaches") within at least four different fields impinging on KM:

This is confusing enough, but at least a few authors (e.g., von Krogh and Roos, 1995; Magalhaes, 1996; Sveiby 2001) have recognized that these kinds of differences exist and have made some attempts to name their frameworks and compare them with other frameworks. However, another even more fundamental paradigmatic difference has registered on my consciousness in the last couple of weeks that has already helped me considerably to reconcile many of the different paradigms listed above.


Realism vs Constructivism


The physical sciences, engineering, and much of biology have strong "realist" approaches to the world - believing that an external reality exists that we can sense and work with directly. This has been the dominant world view for many centuries.


Constructivism (with postmodernist ramifications)

Constructivists believe that the world is constructed in our own minds, and that the only reality cognitive individuals can know or respond to is that which exists in their minds. Maturana and Varela's concept of autopoiesis (Maturana, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1978a, 1988; Maturana and Varela, 1973, 1980, 1987; Varela 1979, 1994; Varela et al.., 1974) has provided a theoretical justification for this approach (see http://autopoietic.net/; Riegler, 2004). 

Whitaker's web-based Encyclopaedia Autopoietica (Whitaker, 2001) provides an invaluable guide to Maturana and Varela's vocabulary and relationships to constructivism. According to Whittaker's Encyclopaedia entry

'Constructivism' is the general label for an epistemological position which (a) denies that individual knowledge directly accesses and unequivocally mirrors an 'objective reality' verbatim and (b) claims that individual knowledge is instead 'constructed' by the observer in response to the medium, but in terms and on terms of the observer's own constitutive features (e.g., modes of operation, conceptualizations, conceptual capacities).

Quoting from Kim (2001):

Social constructivism is based on specific assumptions about reality, knowledge, and learning. To understand and apply models of instruction that are rooted in the perspectives of social constructivists, it is important to know the premises that underlie them.

Reality: Social constructivists believe that reality is constructed through human activity. Members of a society together invent the properties of the world. For the social constructivist, reality cannot be discovered: it does not exist prior to its social invention.

Knowledge: To social constructivists, knowledge is also a human product, and is socially and culturally constructed. Individuals create meaning through their interactions with each other and with the environment they live in.

Learning: Social constructivists view learning as a social process. It does not take place only internally, nor is it a passive development of behaviors that are shaped by external forces. Meaningful learning occurs when individuals are engaged in social activities.

von Glaserfeld (1997), in discussing the role of autopoiesis in radical constructivism stated that,

The salient point in [the] closed circle [of autopoiesis] is the basic condition that Maturana repeats so frequently, namely that what is observed are not things, properties, or relations of a world that exists "as such", but rather the results of distinctions made by the observer himself or herself. Consequently, these results have no existence whatever without someone's activity of distinguishing...., [T]he cognitive subject can know only facts, and facts are items the subject itself has made (Latin: facere). The observer, thus, arises from his or her own ways and means of describing....

If everything said is said by an observer on the basis of his or her operations of distinction, this must be considered valid not only for particular domains of the experiential world but for everything we do, think, or talk about. In Maturana's view of the world, one can request neither external ontological foundations nor an "absolute" beginning.... "Foundation" in the ontological sense presupposes that one considers access to an observer-independent world possible. Maturana denies that possibility, and it is therefore quite consistent that he does not specify an obligatory external starting-point, for this would be equivalent to an "unconditional metaphysical principle" which would have to be considered valid without experiential justification.

Looking back over the feuds in the KM forums, most of the heat seems to come from conflicts between constructionist and critical rationalist (not quite simple "realism") approaches to knowledge - where people with constructionist views of knowledge seem to have great difficulties comprehending the need for fiduciary controls over their claims to knowledge based on a theory of truly (as was so clearly absent in the run up to America's unilateral declaration of war on Iraq).


Merging Critical Rationalism and Constructivism

To me, the most fascinating insight to emerge from comparing constructivism and scientific realism has been that Karl Popper, in his later works (1972, 1974, 1974a, 1982, 1994; Popper and Eccles, 1977) established an epistemological framework that when combined with the ideas of autopoiesis (anticipated to some extent in Popper's discussions of emergence) may actually bridge the gap between the two paradigms in a way both sides can understand.

A key paper by a younger Chilean contemporary of both Maturana and Varela, Hugo Urrestarazu (2001, 2004) provides a clearly logical construction of autopoiesis based on a concept of "domains" corresponding very closely to Popper's three worlds. In Objective Knowledge, Popper distinguishes:

...between two kinds of 'knowledge': subjective knowledge (which should better be called organismic knowledge, since it consists of the dispositions of organisms); and objective knowledge, or knowledge in the objective sense, which consists of the logical content of our theories, conjectures, guesses (and, if we like, of the logical content of our genetic code) [my italics]. Examples of objective knowledge are theories published in journals and books and stored in libraries; discussions of such theories; difficulties or problems pointed out in connection with such theories; and so on. We can call the physical world 'world 1', the world of our conscious experiences 'world 2', and the world of the logical contents of books, libraries, computer memories, and suchlike 'world 3' [Popper 1972:  pp 73-74]


[There are] two different senses of knowledge or of thought: (1) knowledge or thought in the subjective sense, consisting of a state of mind or of consciousness or a disposition to behave or to react [i.e., the result of cognition], and (2) knowledge or thought in an objective sense, consisting of [the expression of] problems, theories, and arguments as such. Knowledge in this objective sense is totally independent of anybody's claim to know; it is also independent of anybody's belief, or disposition to assent; or to assert or to act. Knowledge in the objective sense is knowledge without a knower: it is knowledge without a knowing subject. [Popper 1972:  pp 108-109]

Urrestarazu (2004) defines his domains as follows:

The epistemological significance of Urrestarazu's last sentence is greatly expanded by Popper in his "tetradic schema" (P1 -> TS -> EE -> P2), where P1 is a real-world problem faced by an entity, TS is a tentative theory or solution put forth by the entity, EE is a process by which errors (or the entity itself) is eliminated through trials against the real world, and P2 is a restatement of the real world problems seen by the entity as changed by the surviving solution. Popper generalised this as his "general theory of evolution" [see Popper 1972: 244) as shown in the following diagram.

I have modified Popper's diagram slightly to emphasize the fact that in an evolutionary framework it is an endlessly iterated process - at least until none of the tentative solutions (TS) are able to survive.

von Glaserfeld, himself, apparently without recognizing the similarity of what he wrote and Popper's epistemology also bridges the gap between the critical rationalist and radical constructionist views of the world. From von Glaserfeld (1997): "The function of cognition is adaptive and serves the subject's organization of the experiential world, not the discovery of an objective ontological reality." and from von Glaserfeld (2001), "The most frequent objection [to constructivism] takes the form of the accusation that constructivism denies reality. But this it does not. It only denies that we can rationally know a reality beyond our experience."

Popper, in the later works also accepts a fallibilist view of our claims to knowledge - in that it is impossible for us to ever prove the truth (or falsity) of a claim. However, as discussed above, his evolutionary theory of knowledge (Popper 1972) provides a logically valid and rational way to connect our constructed views of the world to the genuine reality that exists and to provide fiduciary controls to selectively eliminate identifiably false views.



I believe that the conjunction of realist and constructivist epistemologies enabled through the fusion of Karl Popper's evolutionary epistemology of three worlds and autopoietic theory will provide a foundation for developing a genuinely scientific theory of knowledge management that will provide a solid theoretical basis for implementing the kinds of KM programs espoused by KMCI.

I could go on, but I am running out of time.

I know the ideas presented are deeply theoretical, but I genuinely think they will have practical applications. I am working on a proper academic presentation, but would be interested to know if the abbreviated story here makes any sense.


Bill Hall
URL: http://www.orgs-evolution-knowledge.net/Index.htm



From: HALL Bill
Sent: Wednesday, 14 July 2004 9:37 AM
To: 'kmci-Virtual-Chapter@yahoogroups.com'
Subject: RE: [kmci-Virtual-Chapter] Groupthink, the CIA, and KM: to
solve the problem we need to know what it is


Thanks for a very helpful post.

Lack of time is always an enemy of clear expression and several aspects of the post are actually quite new to me, so you are quite right that I have not made some of the distinctions as well as they might have been.

Some responses in-line (again bearing in mind that time is still an issue).


| -----Original Message-----
| From: Mark W. McElroy [mailto:mmcelroy@vermontel.net]
| Sent: Wednesday, 14 July 2004 12:54 AM
| To: kmci-Virtual-Chapter@yahoogroups.com
| Subject: RE: [kmci-Virtual-Chapter] Groupthink, the CIA, and KM: to
| solve the problem we need to know what it is
| Hello Bill:
| What a great post, keep them coming!  Here are some initial thoughts.
| To be clear, I think it is helpful to distinguish between two types of
| realism: epistemological and ontological.  Moreover, the first type,
| which is what I think you are referring to, is the correspondence theory
| of truth.  I say all of this because it is possible for someone to
| interpret your use of realism in the ontological sense, in which case it
| is not an epistemology at all, and does not, therefore, compare to
| constructivism.  Further, as your post goes on to point out, ontological
| realism is not necessarily incompatible with constructivism, so that
| idea too could be lost in the presentation.

Both epistemological and ontological views are important. A major part of the story I am developing (but not referred to or developed in my post) is an understanding of what "knowledge" is in a fundamental biological sense. This is developed initially in the frameworks of autopoiesis and molecular genetics. See also my comments on Urrestarazu (2004) and Popper (1972) below.

| Next, I do not even believe that critical rationalism and constructivism
| are necessarily incompatible.  For example, we can say that people in
| social systems socially construct their knowledge using principles taken
| from critical rationalism.  If there is a problem between the two terms,
| it is that the constructivists very often don't specify their theory of
| evaluation for knowledge processing, even if they have specified their
| theory of truth (e.g., correspondence).  Thus, we could have a
| constructivist/coherence system; a constructivist/critical rationalist
| system; a constructivist/communitarian system; and so forth.  

This is actually the point I was trying to make in my conclusion, when I was running out of time with a train to catch! Having finally become aware of at least the outline of the constructivist paradigms, my still untested beliefs are (1) that the implicit assumptions in constuctivist approaches work strongly against an acceptance that "constructed" knowledge still needs fiduciary checks against an actual external reality, and (2) that Popper's ideas about the nature and growth of human and objective knowledge are in fact quite compatible with constructivism if they can be expressed in paradigmatic terminology understandable to the contructivists.

| To me, critical rationalism is, more than anything else, a theory of
| evaluation.  It is usually predicated on a correspondence theory of
| truth (Popper's was, and so is ours at KMCI), but strictly speaking, it
| need not be. But in any case, as I say above, we can easily have
| socially constructed knowledge that is produced under the influence of
| critical rationalism, so the latter is not necessarily incompatible with
| social constructivism.  And so to say 'social constructivism' is, in a
| sense, to beg the question of what one's theory of evaluation is.

Agreed, but again, the issue is not with the logic but rather problems with paradigmatically sourced language we use to communicate our understandings. We need to work towards understanding the largely implicit contexts surrounding our discussions.

| Next, I do not think I am as ready as you are to accept the parallel you
| suggest exists between Urrestarazu's view and Popper's three worlds.
| Urrestarazu's second, 'biological domain,' in particular seems just an
| extension of his first phenomenological domain, whereas as Popper's
| second world is decidedly mental and of the mind.  Urrestarazu, by
| contrast, seems only to be making the distinction between 'us' and 'me,'
| which to Popper would only be two kinds of world 1 objects.  Hard to
| tell from what you quoted, though.  But even if the parallel can be
| made, what is its special epistemological significance for you?  That
| escapes me.

The correspondence between Popper's three "worlds" (1972, and see my Biological Theory of Knowledge sketch) and Urrestarazu's (2004) domains is primarily in the realm of ontology and an understanding of how knowledge evolved. Urrestarazu is looking at phenomena at the level of molecular components (or comparable objects of higher order autopoietic entities). 

Urrestarazu is primarily concerned with the relationship between 

Popper was mainly concerned with conscious individuals and the relationships between the physical world, an individual's mental (cybernetic) processes, and the individual's persistent (i.e., world 3) descriptions of the world and its activities. Popper has said enough in Objective Knowledge that I am comfortable with the idea that his world 2 is equivalent to Urrestarazu's "biological" domain of self-regulatory processes that enable the autopoietic entity to maintain its integrity in the face of problems raised by its existence in the physical domain. And even if Popper came back and said that I misinterpreted him - the ideas as I have expressed them still provide the foundations for a biologically scientific understanding of "knowledge" (as subsequently sketched in my Biological Theory of Knowledge).

| Last, I must confess that I continue to have a hard time viewing M&T's
| work as inclusive of an epistemology, per se.  To say that we construct
| the world because of our inability to directly apprehend it is not to
| put an epistemology forward.  Rather, it is to put a theory of
| perception or cognition forward.  What it fails to address is how we
| then deal with the perceptions or cognitions we have once we have them.
| How do we distinguish the true ones from the false ones?  What is our
| theory or regulative ideal for truth?  What is our theory for how to
| differentiate between competing claims?  Can we ever know anything with
| certainty?  I see none of that addressed in M&T's writings.  If they're
| out there, I wish someone would point me to them.  But if they're not
| out there, and if the kinds of issues I raise above are in fact not
| addressed in their writings, then I conclude that for all their other
| brilliance, M&T's ideas in epistemology are fairly trivial.  What we
| directly apprehend are our perceptions of the objects in the world to
| which they refer, not the objects themselves.  So what?  We already knew
| that.

You are correct that M&V have said very little that is useful about epistemology. Nevertheless, especially with Urrestarazu's restatements, and his definition of meaning (Urrestarazu, 2001), this has provided me with a foundation from which I am able to derive a biological theory of the evolutionary origins knowledge closely aligned with Popper's. Through an understanding of the origins of higher orders of autopoiesis (i.e., multicellular organisms, 'social' organizations), I am also able to relate various forms of persistent (world 3) knowledge: genetic heredity, organismic memory and language, and organizational routines and documentation.

Epistemologies then emerge from the biological understanding of knowledge.

I could go on, but as always I'm stealing time from other tasks that actually generate an income.

| Regards,
| Mark
| Mark W. McElroy
| Chief Knowledge and Sustainability Officer
| Macroinnovation Associates, LLC ( <http://www.macroinnovation.com>
| <http://www.macroinnovation.com)> www.macroinnovation.com)
| Co-Director, Knowledge Management Consortium International (
| <http://www.kmci.org/> www.kmci.org)
| (802) 436-2250



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