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K 5 Knowledge

Page history last edited by roy williams 1 year, 8 months ago


back to page 1, here ...




Knowledge, for our purposes, is yet another tool, another toolset.  The working definition is that knowledge is the capacity for effective action. Which means that it is both a potential capacity, and a capacity that gets tested, continuously, in practice. 


In addition, the nature of knowledge varies according to the kind of task - the kind of action - that it is applied to. Various types of knowledge can be distinguished. I start with a typology based on how knowledge is created, or  generated: predictable, emergent, and strategic.


Predictable knowledge is generated by stripping out subjectivity and context.  This applies across a number of fields, firstly, the 'hard' sciences (dealing with inanimate materials) and money (and, the many layers of derivatives in financial 'instruments').  It is often also applied within bureaucracy and computer-based systems (particularly, nowadays, to machine learning, aka AI). In short, predictable knowledge is generated by 'commodification' - transforming materials (and even texts) into objects for exchange (and the generation of exchange value). Long range planning is both possible and desirable. 


But the mindset of 'predictability-and-control' is sometimes mistakenly (and/or deliberately) applied to animate ecologies (biological, animal, human, etc), if someone is determined to treat these non-predictable systems as if they were predictable (and inanimate), and to write off any and all casualties as 'externalities' (someone else's problem), or even 'collateral damage' / 'sacrifice zones' / unavoidable costs of 'doing business' (e.g. the Mafia's basic practice). 


Emergent knowledge (or complex adaptive knowledge) on the other hand is context-dependent; it is ordered yet not predictable, and it describes animate (biological, animal, human, etc) events and ecologies, which are to some extent self-correcting and self-regulating. They are also, generally speaking, composed of large numbers of actors (a large ant-nest is a good example), interacting frequently, without any one actor ever being able to see the all the others. Interventions in emergent ecologies need to be light-touch, where feasible (i.e. relying on self-regulation as far as possible), but rapid and decisive when necessary.  Outlier changes are far more important to monitor than core changes - which are generally fairly regular. Traffic 'round-abouts' are a useful example.


Most events are emergent, and are not primarily amenable to control and compliance. All forms of life are by definition emergent, adaptive, variable, and to some extent self-regulating. The base-line definition of 'life' is cell division, which has an in-built mutation rate of 1 in 10 to the 6th. Mutations, like variations on the stock-market, can be to your advantage or disadvantage. You have to wait and see. 


Strategic knowledge on the other hand is highly context dependent, and variable. It uses knowledge that is predictable and/or emergent. It finds the best (strategic) 'fit' for knowledge within a particular context, and within the available resources, time and capacity. It is difficult to codify, although it is of course possible to learn from experience. 


There are other typologies of knowledge.  David Snowden's Cynerfin Framework, for instance, starts with an identification of four types of problems that occurs in management, and then describes how to deal with each one. It is largely resonant with this model.  



Further reading:


Cilliers, P.  (1998) Complexity and Post-modernism

A comprehensive exploration of the links and resonances between complexity thinking and post-modernism.


Snowden, D. and Boone, M. (2007)A Leaders Framework for Decision Making. Harvard Business Review, Nov. 2007 ..

A concise and clear exploration of the practical application of complexity theory to business management (and beyond).


Williams, R. T. (2015) Complexity and the New Ecologies of Knowledge

The most recent synthesis of research, done over many years, on complex adaptive knowledge and it's genealogy.

(Also several other related papers, including many on education and online learning, and affordances, on Researchgate ... ).



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