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Postmodern knowledge management

This article appears in the issue June 2002 [Volume 11, Issue 6]


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By David Weinberger

Postmodernism is a pain in the butt, starting with its very title. Since modern means “now,” how can you be after now except by not existing yet? But, despite its adoption by smart-alecks who use it just to show how smart they are, postmodernism has much to teach us, especially when it comes to the nature of knowledge.

One of the best introductions I've found is by A.K.M. Adam in a brief book called "What is Postmodern Biblical Criticism" (Fortress Press: Minneapolis). AKMA, as he likes to be called, has become a Web buddy of mine through his weblog: seabury.edu/faculty/akma/blog.html. In the book he points to Cornel West's characterization of postmodernism as "antifoundational, antitotalizing and demystifying."

AKMA explains: “Postmodernism is antifoundational in that it resolutely refuses to posit any one premise as the privileged and unassailable starting point for establishing claims to truth. It is antitotalizing because postmodern discourse suspects that any theory that claims to account for everything is suppressing counterexamples . . . Postmodernism is also demystifying: It attends to claims that certain assumptions are 'natural' and tries to show that these are in fact ideological projections.” (p. 5.)

Believe me, you're not going to get a shorter, clearer explanation of postmodernism than that. The radicalness of this view, however, is perhaps not obvious on the surface. We have long thought in our culture that there is a thing called truth, that there is only one truth, and that we get to the truth by digging down through appearances. Postmodernism's three characteristics target precisely that view. Everything is an interpretation, a "reading," postmodernism says. There is no possibility of getting to the uninterpreted, unvarnished facts of life; in fact, the notion that there are uninterpreted facts is a metaphysical assumption that is itself an interpretation. Further, our evaluations of interpretations, declaring some false and exalting others, are themselves interpretations. There's no rock on which to stand.

There are some nasty implications that we don't have to draw from this. We could, for example, conclude that all interpretations are equally groundless, so randomly choosing absurd beliefs is as reasonable as carefully thinking through one's choices. That's enough to make you as cynical as a marketing department. But leave that aside and postmodernism actually has much to teach business.

Business is typically foundational. You see this in the attempt to "clarify" matters by coming up with the simple mission statement. You see it at every facilitated strategy meeting for companies in trouble. You even see it in the reliance on "the bottom line" as a discussion-ender. Foundationalism oversimplifies, stifles new ideas and prevents companies from changing as rapidly as the world around them.

Business is typically totalizing. Just read any memo or strategy document. Talk about the ruthless suppression of counterexamples! Even the authorities cited are selected because they support the company's point of view. Sometimes this is deliberate, but more often it manifests itself as a sincere belief that "Gartner (or Forrester or IDC, etc.) just doesn't get it."

Business is typically in love with mystification, the belief that facts speak for themselves. Look at the way spreadsheets are adored and graphs are idolized. Mistaking the measurement for what's measured is one of the best ways to mystify yourself and others.

Cutting business free from foundationalism, totalizing and mystification unmoors business, but it sets it adrift in the real currents. Most important, it changes the discourse of business, the way it talks to and about itself. Knowledge itself looks like one more attempt not to anchor business to reality but to insist on a stability that just isn't there. In the postmodern world, business is unafraid to acknowledge its own precarious nature.

David Weinberger edits "The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization" (hyperorg.com), e-mail self@evident.com.


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