Sometimes new technologies, like cloning, or xenotransplantation in our age, and bloodtransfusion in ages past lead to extreme reactions, both positive and negative. Martijntje Smits, technological philosopher, just now had her PhD paper published under the title “Exorcising monsters: the cultural domestication of new technologies”, asking how reactions to new technologies can be described, and what this may mean for dealing with future technologies. This from a cultural anthropology perspective based on Mary Douglas.
While reading an article on it in the Dutch publication “Filosofie Magazine“, I started asking how her theory might help understanding the still ongoing debate in KM, with the ‘zealots’ like me on the one hand, and the sceptics who say ‘it’s just a fad to justify consultancy fees’ on the other, with often little in between in the form of success stories.

Martijntje Smits

Let me first introduce you to what the article said:
Smits monster theory starts with the notion that a monster is a two-sided being, that within itself unites aspects that seem impossible to unite. (e.g. Frankenstein, with human traits and aspects, but also an artefact built from inanimate parts)
Monsters in this way challenge cultural boundaries. (e.g. genetic modification challenges the distinction between man and animal, cloning challenges the boundaries of natural progenation) At the same time because of that challenge it cannot be dealt with in terms of existing norms within those cultural boundaries, it’s sort of outside the system, which is likely to frustrate debate and discussion. This also creates the space for both fantasies of doom, as well as of imminent paradise, without being constrained by reality.
Smits then goes on to define four forms of dealing with monsters:

  • killing the monster
  • adapting the monster
  • assimilating the monster
  • embracing the monster
    The first, killing a monster, is a dead end street in the sense that it does not help to give a monster a place within society. It is the strict adherence to existing cultural patterns. Norms and morals are ‘hard’ and inflexible.
    When adapting the monster, the existing cultural boundaries are regarded as inmutable too. They are not perceived as human constructs, with the possibility of change, but as given and final. In stead the monster is adapted. (E.g. the discussion on plastics not being biologically degradable, and thus ‘forever’ around. The monstrous aspect, the everlasting lifespan of plastics, was removed by developing degradable plastics. Technology was adapted to fit within existing cultural boundaries)
    With monster assimilation, cultural boundaries are regarded as human constructs subject to change. Monsters then are not a threat but a challenge. Assimilation can entail both a change of the monster, as well as of cultural values.
    (E.g. the concept of being ‘brain dead’. Transplantation requires that some organs are removed from a body while the heart is still beating. Traditionally death was linked to no heartbeat, implying transplantation being murder. The introduction of the word ‘brain dead’ was introduced in the 70’s as a new cultural category, next to the existing one.)
    Embracing a monster means replacing fear with fascination. Anomalies and the unexplicable are accepted and revered. Monsters are accepted precisely because of its monstrous aspects.

    KM as a Monster

    Now let’s look at KM, not a technology in the sense of artefacts, but certainly a change challenging existing belief systems and cultural patterns. A lot of the discussion I’ve seen on the usefulness of KM is precisely of the type between the embracers and the killers. To me at the heart of KM is the paradigm shift from the industrial command and control style to a human and knowledge focussed perception of organisations. Paradigmshifts imply the, sometimes radical, change of cultural patterns and boundaries. This is where the monstrousity of KM lies: it implies bigger succes and better control of where your organisation is going, by removing a lot of the controls that were already there to do just that.
    There are people embracing KM, like me and other bloggers you can find in the blogroll to the left, and there are those who thinks it’s all worthless. And frankly, most of these discussions are going nowhere. Both sides use different vocabularies, and as every pragmatist philosopher (like e.g. Richard Rorty) can tell you: having to discuss something in the vocabulary of the very system you’re trying to do away with (in the pragmatists case the Platonian dualisms) is an attempt doomed to fail.
    So now we have these failed discussions, and next to that we have attempts to adapt and assimilate the monster.
    The clearest examples of trying to adapt the monster are I think most of the IT-applications that have KM proudly labelled on the package. What we mostly see here are ‘solutions’ strictly adhering to the existing command and control patterns. The ones that say “extract knowledge from your costly employees more efficiently”. In the eyes of the embracers that is making a travesty of what KM is meant to be. In the eyes of the monster-killers it’s something that is tangible and manageable as everything else, and can be blamed when it -not surprisingly- fails to deliver.
    That leaves us with assimilation of the monster, meaning both changing the monster, as well as changing cultural boundaries. What have we done to change the monster? Most of us are unlearning the use of the term KM. Instead we start with real problems and then try to show what from a knowledge perspective solutions might look like. Also grand schemes to transform the organisation have been scrapped, in exchange for smaller changes, gradual transformation, to make people see the effects. Smaller changes also probably prove more palatable (or go unnoticed) by monster killing CEO’s. In the end both KM as a term will have gone as well as the cultural boundaries it rails against. This then is the escape route to both embracers and monster killers: The latter will happily conclude that their foe ‘KM’ was never heard of again, being the fad they always said it was, and the former will focus on the cultural changes they’ve helped establish in organisations.
    (On a side line, you might lay the 4 categories of dealing with monsters, next to an adoptioncurve. With the embracers being the early adopters, and the monster killers being the laggards. Also in terms of the Tipping Point, the assimilation of monsters looks like the sometimes trivial change that is needed to fundamentally change the stickiness of a message, making it tip.)

  • 5 reactions on “Monstrous KM

    1. Ton, thanks for bringing this in! And I loved your “KM monster” 🙂
      Now I feel really bad of not knowing Dutch good enough 🙂

    2. Ton: Thanks for a stimulating blog. I think your suggestion of dropping the term KM in some contexts, and focusing on simple, practical applications is a smart one.
      As with all jargon, KM may work as great shorthand for those who agree what it is shorthand for. It causes trouble when there isn’t much shared meaning. And when it’s new to people, jargon just puts most off.
      Glad to be a fellow “Embracer” though!

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