Just happened to be reading two papers this morning that both reached publication in 2004.

The first refers to the issue at stake: the “debate about determinism framed within the quantum mechanics literature (that) has raged for the last eighty years at least (Freire, 2003)” . The first paper embraces the reality of human presence as a key determinative of knowledge moving forward. The second is dismissive of “interpretivism”, and tries to stay rooted in deterministic approaches, based on the argument that technical solutions need technical theories. Human presence is problematic and leads to theories of only limited usefulness.

From the viewpoint of a decade on and the rise of social media, I venture to say that the “interpretivism” stance still holds more promise for human activity systems. And as Geoffrey Moore has pointed out , the IT battle field is now very much located in “systems of engagement”. For my money, theories of conversation that lead to IT products are more likely to prosper in such a world…

Paper #1:

Osberg, Deborah and Gert J.J. Biesta. 2004. Complexity, knowledge and the incalculable: Epistemological and pedagogical implications of ‘strong emergence’. Paper presented at the Complexity Science and Educational Research Conference, Chaffey’s Locks, Canada, Sept 29–Oct 1.

“This critique of classical determinism can also be aligned with a broader debate in theoretical physics which Max Planck referred to as the ‘determinism quarrel’ (see Freire, 2003) which is mostly concerned with the philosophical (epistemological) implications of quantum mechanics.3 This debate about determinism framed within the quantum mechanics literature has raged for the last eighty years at least (Freire, 2003) . We believe the reason quantum mechanics has been (and continues to be) so unsettling in theoretical physics is precisely because it brings into question the idea of presence, the foundation upon which modern epistemology depends. Quantum mechanics says the universe is not ‘there’ for us, as objects in our every day world appear to be ‘there’ for us.4 The debate about quantum mechanics is, in other words, a scientific controversy with fundamental epistemological implications. But the problematisation of presence is by no means restricted to theoretical physics. It is in fact most well developed in Derrida’s critique of the ‘metaphysics of presence’5 (Derrida, 1976).”

Paper #2:

Information Systems Foundations: Constructing and Criticising Dennis N. Hart and Shirley D. Gregor (Editors) Chapter 1. Gregor, S The struggle towards an understanding of theory in information systems http://www.google.com/url?sa=D&q=http://epress.anu.edu.au/info_systems/mobile_devices/ch14s04.html&usg=AFQjCNHYGV-ce51c01KTQH0fCG5onVgUPg

“Intrepretivism and constructivism are related approaches to research that are characteristic of particular philosophical world views. Schwandt (1994) describes these terms as sensitising concepts that steer researchers towards a particular outlook: Proponents of these persuasions share the goal of understanding the complex world of lived experience from the point of view of those who live it. This goal is variously spoken of as an abiding concern for the life world, for the emic point of view, for understanding meaning, for grasping the actor’s definition of a situation, for Verstehen. The world of lived reality and situation-specific meanings that constitute the general object of investigation is thought to be constructed by social actors (p. 118). Many of the ideas in these approaches stem from the German intellectual tradition of hermeneutics and the Verstehen tradition in sociology, from phenomenology, and from critiques of positivism in the social sciences. Interpretivists reject the notions of theory-neutral observations and the idea of universal laws as in science. Theory in this paradigm takes on a different perspective. Knowledge consists of those constructions about which there is a relative consensus (or at least some movement towards consensus) among those competent (and in the case of more arcane material, trusted) to interpret the substance of the construction. Multiple ‘knowledges’ can coexist when equally competent (or trusted) interpreters disagree (Guba and Lincoln, 1994, p. 113). The emergence of interpretivism in information system research is described by Walsham (1995). Walsham saw interpretivism as gaining ground at that point against a predominantly positivist research tradition in information systems. Klein and Myers (1999) consider that theory plays a crucial role in interpretive research in information systems. Theory is used as a ‘sensitising device’ to view the world in a certain way. Particular observations can be related to abstract categories and to ideas and concepts that apply to multiple situations, implying some generalisability. The types of theory that information systems researchers are likely to reference are social theories such as structuration theory or actor-network theory. The interpretivist paradigm leads to a view of theory which is theory for understanding (Type III), theory that possibly does not have strong predictive power and is of limited generality.”

I’ve been soaking up Francois Cooren’s wonderful work “The Organising Property of Communication”. (http://www.amazon.com/Organizing-Property-Communication-Pragmatics-Beyond/dp/1556199430/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_1). It’s a very technical work, but no less important (like Einstein, I guess…).

I’m amazed that we can so chronically miss the core role of conversation in the very existence of human organisations. I guess we don’t spend much time thinking about water and oxygen either, and they are pretty basic! The difference is that we can’t do much about our cell-level dependency on water and air for life. But there is SO much we can do about our neural-cell level dependency on talk. Talk is the basis of our socialisation, of our competence in the world, and of our competence in aligning around any purposeful enterprise. So why wouldn’t all our HR experts also be experts in the cognition of talk – in “The Organising Property of Communication”?

Of course it’s not a topic that never arises. But so much of what we focus on is BAD PEOPLE in conversations – hence “Fierce Conversations”, “Crucial Conversations”, “Difficult Conversations” – but not the BAD PROCESSES we have embedded in our everyday practice. If you ever had the pleasure of reading “Cheaper by the Dozen” (about 40 years ago!), you’d be aware that Frank Gilbreth was a motion efficiency expert who saw that “brickies” bent over to pick up bricks from the ground, lowering and raising the entire upper body to pick up a brick. This “waste” had been built into the job through long practice. Guess what – our conversations in business are just like that. Our processes and practices of conversation have invisible waste embedded in them.

How much does it matter? Check out item 2 on this list (with a strong interaction with items 3 and 4):

The page is reproduced in full here because it is copyright material, and because you might be interested in the wider picture.

If conversation is actually the core organising property of communication, don’t you think conversation design might have something to offer to “Creating an organisational culture where trust, open communication and fairness are emphasised and demonstrated by leaders”?

A jotting while listening to a group bemoan the indifference they had encountered in taking a new approach into a business. I wrote down a quick typology of the environments I had encountered when faced with the same challenge. It’s a singularly unscientific observation!

Sorry, no research validation – just a thought starter. What kind of culture was it that chose not to move to action? Even one that is resistant to fad-ism has some good things to be said of it.

Here is one I worked on many years ago

‘Development” vs. “production” phases of enterprise represent very different kinds of thinking. So much so that I began to characterise these as different “terrains” of thought, as different as mountains (eg the Urals, the Alps, the Rockies) are from plains (eg the Steppes, the Great Plains, the Tundra). The nature of attribute interaction changes in these terrains.

For example, we need to be clear about how attribute knowledge is brought to bear in knowledge development activities. (such as planning, or product development, or new product introduction.) In those contexts the proximity of dialog is far more important. Deep, tacit knowledge of the way things that “should” be done can be done, is as vital as knowledge of the latest explicit regulation.

What if we design conversations for Development (a la Toyota Obeya), and then rely on all embedded knowledge to flow from that context? We then have a different skill set engaged in the embedded knowledge maintenance.

This move brings to the surface a great deal of complexity and subtlety that is at play in knowledge management, but that is not addressed. I found no power in most of the blunt approaches that couldn’t work with such fundamental distinctions as “development” vs “production”. But I rejected the idea that we then had to unleash complexity in ways that bewildered everyday attribute managers (safety guys, for example.) The Lite Systems began to grow in ways that attended to this reality.

The mixed history of attribute functions leads to confusion over their role in our knowledge and activities. Some attributes – the management of people and money – have been around as long as the corporation itself. Other attributes have been added later as new concerns come into focus for social or regulatory reasons. These later additions almost always meet the same fate – an arduous and thankless journey from outright rejection, deferral and avoidance for as long as possible, minimisation, under-resourcing (people, budget, attention, authority) to eventual mainstreaming in some nevertheless-not-quite-as-important-ever form.

This history means we are extremely slow to learn the patterns and distinctive of attribute functions

Attribute knowledge has 2 major elements:

a) The “about” part

b) The “embedded” part

At the interface is a constant living dialogue:

• To maintain the embedded part alive and well

• To de-embed stuff that is no longer relevant to the context (for efficiency)

• To embed stuff that is newly relevant (for effectiveness)

This requires a skilled interpretive function – effectively compliance experts will be sociologists of work