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Pushing the boundaries of the knowledge sciences

This article appears in the issue February 2013 [Volume 22, Issue 2]
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We are living in extraordinary and unprecedented times. Never before have we seen the convergence of so many different approaches to, and the need for, the discovery, transfer and application of knowledge.

Such times demand nothing less than the increased expansion of both the inner and outer boundaries of human awareness. While we KM'ers like to talk about tacit knowledge, we tend to avoid using words like consciousness in the same conversation. But as we move into a more complex, closely interconnected society, we can no longer limit our discussions to purely objective science.

Knowledge by nature has a threefold structure: subject, object and the process by which the subject and object interact with each other. Eastern philosophy tends to be deeply subjective and seeks to avoid any attachment to objective reality. Western science tends to be the opposite, even to the point of forbidding the introduction of any semblance of subjectivity during an investigation or experiment. That fragmented, reductionist approach to knowledge discovery is the root cause of many of the gaps in our knowledge today.

The blending of East and West, subjective and objective, natural and artificial, has implications that are timely, exciting and sometimes frightening. Yet, while many individual branches of science have been achieving significant breakthroughs, the knowledge sciences have lagged woefully behind.

In the quiet stillness of the mountains of West Virginia, a small group from our KM research community gathered at the Mountain Quest Institute to discuss and explore some of the more interesting advances in various branches of the knowledge sciences and related disciplines. Our purpose was to awaken, enliven and re-establish the knowledge sciences as the core foundation upon which we can gain the greatest benefit from the amazing discoveries awaiting us. A key desired outcome was to determine how such new advancements could be applied in practical and useful ways. Our goal was to remain true to our motto of "theory to practice."

The group's agreed upon definition of knowledge was: the capacity (potential and actual) to take effective action in varied and uncertain situations (from Alex and David Bennet, Organizational Survival in the New World, Elsevier, 2004). Here's a small sample of the myriad of topics covered during the retreat, some of which are being discussed here publicly for the first time.

Group theory, mathematics and human consciousness

Cyclomatic complexity pioneer Tom McCabe set the table by sharing his latest work on group theory in mathematics and its application to human consciousness and knowledge discovery. The human consciousness connection shows up in the study of super-successful, creative individuals such as the late Steve Jobs, who seem to have the innate ability to shift their perspective from their own self-awareness (subjective) to empathy with the end user/customer (objective) to transforming their industry (process-oriented), all while allowing the impact of those interactions to continuously renew, grow and evolve their personal identity.

McCabe has shown that the thought processes of entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs follow six distinct shifts in perspective, which directly correspond to the six permutations of what is known in mathematics as a Dihedral (3) Group. (For a complete explanation, see T. McCabe, Expanded Consciousness, Blurb, blurb.com, 2012). McCabe and his fellow researchers have developed and implemented a process for guiding entrepreneurs, inventors and the like through those six perspectives.

Most people and most organizations use only one or two of the perspectives. By using all six, the chances of discovering hidden connections and unique insights greatly increase, giving rise to faster innovation and potentially more significant breakthroughs. McCabe's message: We need to fully embrace mathematics as a supporting, foundational discipline for building increased capacity in problem-solving and knowledge discovery.

Knowledge calculus

We have knowledge management, knowledge engineering and, finally, the beginnings of the knowledge sciences. Unlike other branches of science, knowledge science lacks a robust set of tools for the expression of its various elements, the most fundamental of which is a knowledge calculus.

Brian (Bo) Newman is the founder of the first online KM community and principal developer of the KFAM knowledge flow analysis and modeling methodology. He has spent the last decade quietly putting together a calculus for symbolically representing knowledge in its varying levels of abstraction and performing basic operations on the elements being represented.

The underlying premise is that meaning is dependent upon the perspective (i.e., ontology) of the knower (there's that nasty subjective element again). If we accept the notion of shifting perspectives as in McCabe's application of Dihedral Group Theory, then we need a means of symbolically representing the elements of each perspective and its associated body of knowledge. Simply stated, we need tools for binding knowledge to the perspective from within which that knowledge was derived and applied. Loss of perspective is one of the primary causes for a condition known as disassociation (see "Unclogging the Knowledge Pipeline," KMWorld, October 2010).

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