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September 06, 2004




Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I guess we part company on a very basic issue:

Knowledge happens in the mind of an individual vs. it emerges through social interaction!

My test for your assertion is this - If you are alone on a desert island and are learning, reflecting and building competencies - will you have knowledge?

IMO opinion NO.

Knowledge is a social construct, you have to test those beliefs / learnings / competencies with others AND gain their approval to claim knowledge.

I do not doubt that organization of thoughts, creation of individual metal models and individual mind activities happen, may help with decisions and sense-making, but they do not define knowledge on their own.


Before buying "Matthew Parsons: Effective Knowledge Management for Law Firms", I would be interested in your comments how this book stacks up against "Gretta Rusanow: Knowledge Management and the Smarter Lawyer", which I have in my collection.

Tom Collins


Taking up your test, if I'm alone on the island and I figure out how to adapt local materials and some copper wire I find washed up on the shore to build a wind-driven electric generator, it seems to me I've combined existing information with creativity to solve a problem.

The testing is against nature, rather than the opinions of other humans, and the proof is that it works!

It seems to me too human-centric to insist that knowledge only becomes knowledge if another human (or group of them) agrees with it. The history of human thought has been marred by too many examples of new ideas being held back or rejected by the current experts for me to accept that limitation.




I'm not sure we have sufficient common ground here to take this much further. Knowledge IMO is not 'local', personal answers or solutions.

When you return from that island and your invention is exposed to validation and testing (are there better ways to build it?, can we find tweaks to juice up the power output? are there alternative materials?) then we have something closer to knowledge.

My sense from your writings is you believe knowledge exists out there just waiting to be dicovered, that a test against nature provides sufficient proof. My take is your invention needs social approval to make it knowledge - we have plenty of people who invent and act, but if their efforts do not get social approval, we lock them quietly away in the madhouse!

Sure social construction can lead to many blind turns. We have great difficulty acknowledging the value, beliefs and actions / solutions of ancients or 'indigenuous' knowledge in these times of 'scientific proof', replication and technological advancements, but back then, the knowledge of that day survived validation and was attributed utility and value.

Knowledge is indeed a very social thing! Personal knowledge is then - a slight oxymoron

As always enjoyable to dialog with you.

Tom Collins


I do think we have a fair amount of common ground and would like to try at least one more step here. Staying with your deserted island example, first I want to acknowledge that much of the raw material "knowledge" that allowed me to survive and engage in problem solving at all would come from the knowledge of others I had accumulated previously. I hope I've made it clear how important and useful I believe group knowledge work is and that I've shown it in my model. I think what we are both aiming at from different perspectives is finding ways that knowledge work can be made to work better. So let's pick at the problem a little more, shall we?

I'm curious what label you would apply to the "stuff" I'd have generated all alone, in my head on the island? Say I made charcoal sketches and was stuck there for two years and went through a couple of upgrades in response to problems thrown at me by nature. Say the generator worked pretty darn well in that tropical climate. And let's say one of the unique features was a lubricant for the armature I found oozing out of a fruit unknown anywhere else that made my generator exceptionally efficient without the use of bearings or expensive synthetics.

If my designs and solutions to problems are not "knowledge," what are they?

Now, say I come back and recognize that I may have something really valuable, but I need to develop it further for different climates and conditions. I pull together a team of six designers and engineers and we get to work in my garage and come up with some "tweaks" and "alternative materials" and a much better way to build it than by my hands. But we operate on a "skunk works" kind of secrecy and do our prototyping and testing without anyone else knowing what we're up to.

As a result, we come up with a smaller, lighter, more efficient wind generator that will cost 10% of the current models to produce. But we haven't told anyone else yet. Do we have "knowledge" yet? If not, what do we call what we've done? If so, what changed it into "knowledge"?

How many humans have to be involved for our mental exercises and resulting "stuff" to become knowledge? What kind and quality of interaction is required? And if we don't write down or record any of the interactions, where is the "knowledge" residing?

And along the way, my team of experts lets me do menial things like polishing parts with sand-paper and I make another accidental discovery: when you combine powdered copper and quartz from the polishing cloth with the lubricant from the island, you get a super-conducting flexible material - at room temperature - that could make our generator even more cost-effective for small areas like a factory complex or a remote village. I do a little testing on my own, just to see how much is needed and how far it can conduct. Do I have any new "knowledge" yet? If not, what do I have?

I tell the team about it, but we haven't done much testing yet and tell nobody else. Is that "knowledge"? If not, what do we call it?

Regardless of what labels we may agree to apply to these small steps along the way, they are the essential building blocks for what you seem to restrict yourself to in using the term knowledge. Without the steps taken by individuals and small groups working in isolation, the kind of social constructs you describe can never occur. Whatever label we may choose, I believe we must continue to study how these small individual steps occur, how to nurture and support them, and how to more efficiently connect and share them with our larger groups.

That is what I mean by personal knowledge management and why I maintain that it is an essential precursor to KM at the organization or community level. I've tried in my model to account for the connecting and sharing steps, while not losing sight of the necessary initial processes.

Even then, I have a hard time envisioning precisely what you mean by "knowledge." It still seems to me that the "social constructs" you describe must reside in the minds of individuals. To me, when an idea gets fixed in any form outside the mind of an individual, it tends to become "information" rather than knowledge. There is a fuzzy (to me) area when we try to include the experience or wisdom of individuals using techniques like story-telling, context notes, etc. Perhaps then we are conveying knowledge, more than just information. But whatever we can do to help individuals more efficiently accumulate these social constructs - and then use them to solve problems and build new knowledge - should only help the community in the long run.

Going back to our wind-driven generator, what do you think will happen when we "expose" our invention to the world? If we've patented our discoveries and they're not easily duplicated, big utilities and big oil are going to fund a lot of "science" to discredit what we've done and try to enlist big government to help them suppress the technology. Are the results of this kind of "abrasion" and "testing" what you mean by "knowledge"?

Discredit, demonize, suppress. If you like, I can list quite a number of historical examples following this exact pattern, but much of the current copy-fight developments illustrate the rather dispiriting way the human "community" tends to respond to disruptive new technologies and ideas. That history is, I guess, another part of why I'm inclined to focus on the individual for knowledge production.

But the more important part flows from my belief that individual knowledge work inherently comes first in the process of building group knowledge. Any of this make sense?

Bill Ives

Tom and Denham I have enjoyed your dialog. I tend to take a Piagetian approach to knowledge, being trained as a cognitive psychologist. Knowledge is nether purely individual or purely social but comes from the interaction of the individual perspective with the social "reality." Individuals interpret this "reality" in terms of their own framework and, hopefully, continue to modify this framework in the face of new input from outside reality. Tom you mentioned a concern about my label of personal knowledge management as a "movement." I think there is some very good thought coming out of the personal knowledge management discussion. This use of the term "movement" was done simply in reporting on Denham's very useful blog. I attached no greater meaning to the term nor did I intend to imply a debate here. I was not aware of any dysfunctional debate occuring on the issues and certainly have not followed it in depth to know this.


Tom I too subscribe to articulated / explicit / recorded stuff as mainly information. There is an emergent quality to knowledge my thinks. Read Stacey


so when does 'stuff' become knowledge?

Does it need to be shared / vetted / approved with or by 2, 10 or 10k people first? I think we are getting into issues of knowledge quality here - the important concept, is participation in social construction, other wise we are in the realm of personal belief, individual mental models and conceptualization / conjecture.

In my lexicon; sharing, vetting and social adoption are key characteristics of 'knowledge' - they must be present to justify the label - along with utility and meaning.

>>"I'm curious what label you would apply to the "stuff" I'd have generated all alone, in my head on the island?" - thoughts, ideas, skills, competencies, beliefs, individualistic solutions ???

Hidden knowledge.

I'm thinking you would not know it was really useful, valuable or worthy, until you had 'exposed' your invention to a market AND won approval - the rest of the world (aside from the skunkworks team) may eschew the entire idea - without the wider adoption and approval you could not claim knowledge.

>>...."individual knowledge work inherently comes first in the process of building group knowledge." - here I side with the likes of Stacey, Lakatos, Latour.... and social construction


The real knowledge emerges in dialog, accrues through validation, is grounded in social gesture.

Stacey puts forward the view that knowledge is a process of responsive relating, it is ephemeral and emergent in conversation, social engagement and guesture- not located as a mental model in an individuals' head, - so it cannot be made explicit and shared. Knowledge assets lie in the pattern of relationships not abstractions than can be captured, explicated and stored.

I'm thinking the very concept of 'knowledge' itself, is a social construct, not something within an individual mind. The key skills then are discourse, establishing communication and building relationships - this seems a long way away from 'efficient thinking', concentrating on organization of personal ideas, introspection, explication and personal refection.

I guess we then do differ on the meaning of knowledge.

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