The necessity role of the curmudgeon

April 5, 2007

The four hour flight to Moscow went quickly yesterday as I was traveling with David Gurteen. It’s being a long time since we were able to spend any time together so there was a lot of catching up to do. I may not forgive him for telling me I had to wear a suit and tie (the second outing this year and as I discovered today unnecessary) but the conversation was good. One of the subjects, which continued with Raj Datta (the third speaker) over dinner, was the debate v discourse question in the context of a spate of high temperature exchanges on two Knowledge Management (KM) list serves in which we are both participants.

Thinking about the conversation while listing to How to do KM presentations in Russian (generally vendors with slides from their US parent companies which I seen before and did not believe were valid approaches then, and do not believe will work now) I was reminded of a quote from Karl Weick (I cannot for the moment validate the phrase or the source, but I think it is from The Social Psychology of Organizing) and a second quote for which a precise origin is probably undiscoverable although many claim it. The two are are:

…. learning to argue as if you are right and to listen as if you are wrong (Weick)
Strong opinions, weakly held (Anon)

Note the importance of assertion in both cases; not a process of consensus, but a willingness to challenge and to be challenged in turn. I think that general reaction of discomfort that comes to assertive behaviour in list serves is at the heart of my concern about investing time in them, compared with extending my conversations in the blogosphere. As a part of deciding where to invest time I am pushing the barriers of tolerance in several list serves as evidenced here.

In the above referenced vigorous debates I have been an active participant, and at times this has not been popular (although as ever there is back channel support from people who do not want to engage. However the issues that are coming to the forefront of my thinking are:

  1. my liking of robust debate and challenge, both of which are the norm in the blogosphere as opposed to some form of bland supportive consensus. Some people seem to dislike any form of conflict and (to my mind) do not understand the necessity of passion in these environments for any idea or knowledge to develop.
  2. The inability to turn off the noise in a list serve. I will engage with anyone, but there comes a point where no exchange is taking place. In one case I put about half an hour into writing a “this is how the blogosphere works” to counter nonsensical comparisons of blogs with SPAM. That effort was ignored and after a few exchanges it was evident that the person would say that black was white if it supported their ideological position. Now in the blogosphere I could just turn off the link; in the list serve the material pours in every day.
  3. The inability of people to take robust criticism of their ideas without them taking said criticism personally. Now I was trained in formal debating, where you argue for positions with which you may not agree, and to which you may be violently opposed. Some people without that background seem to link a particular statement or belief with their own personal identity, and therefore see all challenge as personal.

The danger of all of this (at one extreme) is that avoidance of criticism means that all one is left with is a breathless extrusion of self serving platitudes (it was too good a phrase not to use). Of course many people enjoy the debate. I have lost count of the times when I have attempted to withdraw from one on the grounds that no one else is joining in, only to received back chat emails saying carry on we are enjoying it. My increasing response to this is then join in, don’t leave it to me. So the lurkers seem to have varying views. The type I actively dislike are the fence sitters for whom, as I said a few days ago impalement is too good

So back to the title of this blog, and the two quotes. Any community (and a list serve is a form of community) has to decide what its norms are. If it wants to be a comfortable place that supports its members then it should state as such and moderate its interactions. If it wants to be a place of learning and invention then it should embrace debate and welcome the curmudgeon, who refuses to go with the flow and is more than prepared to challenge the dress style of the Emperor. Now my observation is that knowledge management list serves seem to moving towards the former not the latter. This may reflect the increasing decline of KM as a strategic focus for organisations. In effect people are now looking for support for their programmes, rather than exploring a new and dynamic subject. Interestingly the Values and Prediction Markets list serves in which I participate are unmoderated, at times violent, always messy and fascinating in consequence. Innovation never came from being nice to people, or confirming with the majority, inventors are cantankerous, passionate and committed. The blogosphere seems to welcome such people; for list serves, the jury is out.

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In the lounge at Heathrow with David Gurteen on my way to Moscow for a ...

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