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Sustaining Objective Knowledge in Business

In a pragmatic sense, knowledge is validated through a set of logics designed to eliminate contradictions. As Watkins (2003) notes, “A cannot be non-A at the same time and in the same respect. Therefore man must relate all his knowledge in search of contradictions; if he should encounter one he must determine which idea is correct, if either, which is false, and reject the falsehood(s)” (p 5). However there are fundamental differences in the means objective knowledge is obtain depending on what frame of reference we are referring to in trying to answer the question. Is it that of personal knowledge or that of societal knowledge?

Personal knowledge may be said to be subjective in that what we perceive and what we cognize can be two different things. Gazzaniga (1998) used information first published by Libet to show that sense perception in the conscious mind is different from that of the sub-conscious. Due to time lags, the sub-conscious mind sorts through the differing signals and presents a coherent but modified version to the conscious mind (p.69-74). Gazzaniga also notes a study by Nijhawan that seem to suggest some things that we think we know, for example a object moving in space, are the result of the sub-conscious predicting future events rather than necessarily objectively reporting on what exactly it is there.

From a purist perspective then, it is clear that where any objective knowledge is suspect, the ability to clearly state that objective knowledge is possible is not true even without having to rely on arguments of people whose senses are impaired. However, this argument assumes that we cannot correct for the impairment through a posteriori means. Correction of such contradictions would entail recognizing the contradiction (is the line yellow or red) or show that the proposition of such knowledge is false (where will the line appear next).

This ability to diagnose contradiction, propose, test, and verify limits the subjectivity inherent in sense perception suggest that self-correction must be taken into account when looking at objective knowledge. A self-correction mechanism suggests that given enough time to identify and correct all contradictions that objective knowledge is possible.

It does however lead to a more insidious side effect and that is whether objective knowledge can exist in societies. Sense perception and individual recall of objective knowledge is limited. As a supplement to how information is stored and retrieved society has developed books, writing, computers, and pictures both moving and static. These stores of information represent a consensus of belief as to what is true knowledge and what isn’t. Hence the reason why a person who is colour blind can understand a priori that there is a difference between brown and red without having experience of that knowledge through sense perception. Stores of information however are subjective based upon the base of power and influence imposed upon them at the time of their encoding.

For example, while the church for years prior to Galileo knew the Earth revolved around the Sun, the base of power that they had developed taught many “truths” to the common people based on knowledge known to be incorrect. The heresy of Galileo was not that he could prove the Earth revolved around the Sun, it was that he contested knowledge that the Church held as truth before the Church was in a position to ‘redefine’ those other pieces of knowledge that were dependent on the existing belief of an Earth-centered universe. As such the self-correction to the objective knowledge of the universe by Galileo represented a fundamental threat to the Church’s base of power and needed to be repressed at all costs.

The question itself then becomes subjective: Can objective knowledge exist in societies? While the basic underpinnings of recognition of contradiction still hold, albeit on what might be longer time scales, if a society is willfully blind to such contradictions then I would suggest that objective knowledge is not possible on a societal level while the will to change is subdued either through ignorance, coercion, or through force of arms.

What this means for business is simply that by being willfully blind to contradictions within the organization, the business runs the risk of losing one of their key competitive advantages – the knowledge base on which the business was originally founded. Knowledge needs to be constantly nourished and maintained the same as your car needs to have gas in the tank and regular tune-ups. Failure to do so can result in the loss of competitive advantage, market share, and in extreme cases result in a poisoned working environment due to a lack of care on the part of the organization.

This emotional connection to knowledge is consistent with dimensions and forms of knowledge creation under conditions of care as proposed by Nonaka & Nishiguchi (2001). While the exact mechanisms are just now beginning to become known (Marquis, 1996), the phenomena of how care impacts knowledge creation are known. Nonaka & Nishiguchi cite 5 dimensions to care as being presence, propensity, accessibility, voice, and emotion.

Training programs, mentor-coaching programs, and focus groups created in a supportive environment where individuals are allowed to explore the aspects of the knowledge they are trying to understand are the simplest ways to achieve such ends. Further enhancement by supplying a working environment where people can apprentice those skills and understandings reinforces such knowledge transfer and can therefore be of substantial benefit to the knowledge worker and the organization. By reestablishing conditions of high care in the working environment the likelihood of an organization’s knowledge resources maintaining objective information is increased and its competitive sustainability maintained.

Kevin Feenan
Managing Director
Knomaze Corporation

References

Gazzaniga, (1998). The Mind’s Past. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press

Marquis, J. (1996, October 14). Our emotions: Why we feel the way we do. New advances are opening our subjective inner worlds to objective study. Discoveries are upsetting long-held notions. Series: The brain. A work in progress. The Los Angeles Times (pre-1997), 1. Retrieved on August 25, 2004 from ProQuest Database.

Nonaka, I., & Nishiguchi, T. (Eds.). (2001). Knowledge emergence: Social, technical, and evolutionary dimensions of knowledge creation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Watkins, D. (2003) Invalid Questions and the Roots of Objective Knowledge. Retrieved on August 21, 2004 from http://www.don-watkins.com/aaa1.doc

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