Wave-particle duality

April 17, 2008

The ActKM discussion on information and knowledge has continued to expand its range. In a recent exchange Joe Firestone made reference to a paper he co-authored sometime ago which he regards as a definitive demolition of the Cynefin framework. Now I have consistently refused to provide a formal response to said paper. It is a great example of the strawman fallacy, describing what I say in a way that I do not recognise, and then attacking the representation. To reply to it requires multiple but I did not say that statements which becomes nonsensical when it goes beyond a certain limit.

One of the big things in my original paper was the statement that knowledge is simultaneously and paradoxically both a thing and a flow, a reference to wave-particle duality in physics. As the issue came up again I went back to the paper, and reread it in the context of disputes over categorisation. That gave me some new insight and I reproduce the post below for those who have not read it in the ActKM listserv.

I conclude (to give you a flavor and encourage reading) If you think in categories, then the world is presented as categories or a failure to categorise.

You know it’s interesting to come back to this one, and the question of paradox (wave-particle duality etc) is important. I decided to re-read Joe and Mark’s paper to double check on p22 and saw it in a new (but not a more positive I am afraid) light in the context of recent discussions over categorisation.

Those who have been brave or tenacious enough to follow this discussion will know that I have been arguing that Joe wants to create categories (hierarchical and otherwise) and that such a way of thinking is antithetical in language and form of argument to understanding a world informed by complexity science. At a lesser level this also applies to Stephen.

Now reading the Joe/Mark piece again from this perspective was interesting. My original article (Complex Acts of Knowing introduced the Cynefin framework and argued that we needed to understand that different approaches to knowledge management, communities etc applied depending on the context and that it was a mistake to argue for one approach over another without first developing an understanding of the nature of the system. I also argued for a recognition that We always know more than we can say and we can always say more than we can write down was key to KM and that we had to learn to handle narrative and experience as much as we handled content and information centric views. I have developed this substantially since, not least in Software (SenseMaker).

By way of introduction I made reference to three generations of understanding KM. The pre-Nonaka period characterised by data warehousing and decision support, the Nonaka period characterised by attempts to make tacit knowledge explicit and early attempts at collaboration, and then a third or post Nonaka period which would recognise the importance of narrative etc. Joe and Mark spent a considerable amount of time arguing that I had failed to realise that the most important distinction was between Knowledge Processing and Knowledge Management, and that their (Or Mark’s) understanding of this was the fault line between first and second generation KM. Now at the time I dismissed this for several reasons. Mark had failed to get any traction for the idea during his period in IBM where the main focus was on the IKM (Prusak plus the genesis of myself & Cross) and the various technology groups. Not only that Joe and Mark were then heavily involved in the commercialisation of certification programmes and making some extravagant marketing claims (one of the reasons behind the first flame wars here on ActKM.

However I now understand it different. For Joe categories are important. Thus (as he does in the paper) if he can find examples for Nonaka like thinking in the pre-Nonaka period then my talking about three generations has to be false. Now the whole point about generations is that they overlap – Your father does not have to die so that you can exist. I was creating a way of viewing history as an unfolding and overlapping series of events not a set of categories where things were right or wrong.

You get the same thing (in what is still a poor paper) in the insistence that product and process are not confused. In respect of my saying that knowledge was paradoxically a think and a flow and the reference to Physics, Joe and Mark say “This is all very neat, but it is also very problematic: (1) Philosophers have learned much from paradox, but this doesn’t mean that paradox in the definition of knowledge is necessarily good for KM, especially if there is no paradox. (2) It is not true that physicists have concluded that electrons are both particles and waves. Rather, electrons are things that may be described using a particle model under certain conditions and a wave model under others. The reason why there is no contradiction or paradox in this view is that physicists know enough not to claim that electrons are both waves and particles, but that they are a third thing entirely”

Again I dismissed this at the time as a failure to understand the nature of paradox. The whole point about paradox is that it allows is to reference a third and as yet not fully understood state. A potential Hegelian synthesis. However if you think in categories this sort of ambiguity has to be removed. Hence the debates on Hamlet.

For me recognising ambiguity and its nature through paradox, but avoiding a surrender to relativism and social constructivism (understood as a universal) is essential to making progress in this and related fields. Logical contradictions and the misuse of language should be eliminated, but we should not place too great a reliance on language (my point in quoting Lakomski) per se, narrative uses it, but is not reliant on it. Experience can use it, but cannot be constrained by it.

For the rest of the paper I continue to maintain my position that the best defense I can offer is to reference the original paper. Given that they don’t even draw the model properly but represent it as (to them) a more familiar two by by matrix) makes my point. If you think in categories, then the world is presented as categories or a failure to categorise.

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