Is KM a Pseudoscience?

There was a bit of a spat on the actKM forum over the past week or so. One of the Forum’s members (who’s now left in high dudgeon) was testifying to the utility of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) in KM, which met with a notable lack of sympathy and a reading list from Dave Snowden on why NLP is a pseudoscience. On that list was Barry Beyerstein’s wonderful paper “Distinguishing Science from Pseudoscience” which led me in turn to Charles Frankel’s 1973 paper in Science “The Nature and Sources of Irrationalism”. Both helped me clarify for myself the characteristics and dangers of “magical thinking” in knowledge management, which I’ve blogged and spoken about before

The Beyerstein article in particular caught my attention for the clarity it brings to the conduct of a rational pursuit. To quote from a post I made to the actKM Forum: I was especially taken by Beyerstein’s reference to Broad’s fourth limiting principle: “It is impossible for a mental event to produce directly any change in the material world … without the mediation of muscular effort”. Management theory in general and KM theory in particular sometimes seems to forget that.

Now KM is neither a science nor a pseudoscience, but the basic principles of rationality versus irrationality articulated by Beyerstein turn out to be a pretty good checklist for scrutinising the theory and practice of KM as a rationally and “scientifically” conducted pursuit. In fact, some of Beyerstein’s characteristics of a pseudoscience form a very useful charter for how to critically question an emerging field of knowledge and practice such as KM, not least to sniff out the charlatans. Here’s the scorecard as I see it on 12 of Beyerstein’s criteria, where the score represents how well we in KM are doing in NOT being a pseudoscience – we have a way to go, it seems:

(1) Isolation – we need to do better in KM at connecting to prior and parallel disciplines in both theory (eg cognitive and social psychology, anthropology, brain science) and practice (eg learning, information management, records management) – without falling prey to sin #7 (impenetrability and obfuscation). 7 out of 10

(2) Non-Falsifiability - we need to find ways of understanding and characterising the differences between success and failure in KM, and of being clear about for a given hypothesis and intervention, what would count as a falsification of that hypothesis or an invalidation of the intervention. 4 out of 10

(3) Misuse of Data
– this is back to the quantitative qualitative discussion we have been having on the actKM Forum – the KM academic literature (it’s not alone) is prone to highly leveraging both qualitative and quantitative findings, leveraging them far beyond the point their real substance warrants. We need a better understanding and mechanism for collecting, comparing, validating and understanding data. 5 out of 10

(4) No Self-correction, Evolution of Thought - it seems to me like we are currently just going round in circles around the same basic ideas. There has been no real innovation in KM in the past decade (though lots of rushes to support or privilege aspects of the KM domain above others). This is largely due, I think, to the instability of the KM profession (people don’t stay for long in it) and the weakness of the links between academia and practice. 5 out of 10

(5) Special Pleading – we are masters of saying “you can’t measure the results of KM, we’re different” – the fact is, we don’t understand our practice until we can understand the relationships between interventions and impact. We may not be able to give a good account now, but that doesn’t exempt us from a more systematic investigation of what we do. 4 out of 10

(6) Unfounded Optimism – well, we actually do need this for many KM interventions, in some cases it may be all that keeps us going. But this also results in having (or not challenging) unrealistic expectations of what we can achieve, leading to both cynicism (in our stakeholders) and burnout (among ourselves) when our rash promises don’t come to fruition. 4 out of 10

(7) Impenetrability - we do encounter from time to time among our community ideological stubbornness and an imperviousness to argument or genuine dialogue; or articulations so abstruse that it’s hard to fathom what’s being discussed. I think we have got better at tuning into each other, having meaningful dialogues around strong differences, with the odd exception here and there (the ideologues, thankfully don’t stick around), but we haven’t done so well in managing clarity of communications or commitment to that clarity. 6 out of 10

(8) Magical Thinking
– this was a theme of my talk at the actKM conference this year; we are strongly prone to this (it partially results from #6 Unfounded Optimism); this is the belief that good things will result from willpower (read design) alone, without the need for “muscular effort”; Noah Raford recently referred to belief in “best practices” as akin to sympathetic magic: “It’s like building a model of something, building a doll that has a likeness of something else, and hoping that the effects will transfer.” 6 out of 10

(9) Ulterior Motives – many of the players in the space have commercial interests in the theory and practice they are espousing (eg consultants, pundits and technology developers) and if this is combined with Isolation #1 and Impenetrability #7 it’s hard to challenge such special interests (the certification debate is a case in point – Douglas, you said you would share your curriculum?) – I actually think we’re getting better at this, a decade ago the KM space was rife with snakeoil and their salesmen; but I don’t think we’re by any means immune from more of them once KM-like stuff becomes sexy and affordable again (watch Enterprise 2.0 for a re-hash) – and because #4 means that there are always new and inexperienced people coming into KM and trying to make decisions based on no prior knowledge; progress on this depends on making progress in #2, #4, #5 and #7 - 7 out of 10

(10) Lack of Formal Training - KM is full of practitioners and academics who have wandered or been teleported into KM from something else, sometimes related (like Library Science or Learning & Development) and sometimes unrelated; we have very few mechanisms for validating or falsifying the authority of pronouncements based on prior discipline; there is a crying need for accreditation, but very little in the way of provision beyond an onerous though usually useful Master’s level qualification; we need some way of ascertaining and validating the relative authority of the voices in our space other than the fairly crude ones we have now – I believe communities like actKM are an important force in achieving this; we need better professional development and accreditation structures – 6 out of 10

(11) Bunker Mentality - pseudoscientists like to proclaim how they are misunderstood, persecuted or treated badly by the rest of the world (this definitely cropped up in the NLP discussion), and there are shades of this kind of self-pity in the KM community I think; we do have a hard time getting acceptance and understanding because of many of the items above, so I can see why this happens, but overall I think we’re pretty robust on this, and open to engagement with the rest of the world, so I’d give us an 8 out of 10 on this point.

(12) Lack of Replicability of Results – we are really bad at this, partly arising from #5 Special Pleading; we are very bad at giving full, objective and examinable accounts of our work, not to mention or lack of ability to characterise success and failure clearly. This is why we are so prone to #8 Magical Thinking, and the application of simplistic recipes and best practices, whipped up with a handsome dollop of #6 Unfounded Optimism, and #7 Impenetrability to make sure our doubts about our success are nicely covered up and free from examination. We need to get much better at journaling and sharing our practices, warts and all, having them competently examined by experienced professionals, and collecting and sharing meaningful data across the community, both academic and professional. 3 out of 10.

This gives us an overall average score of 5.4 out of 10 – must do better

These of course are just my own impressionistic views – how would YOU score KM as a rational endeavour?

3 Comments so far

John Maloney

Hi - Good to see ACT-KM still excoriates people that don’t toe-the-line. In this case, however, ACT-KM is spot-on. Let’s be straight—NLP is a farce and sham. It is akin to Dianetics. It is not science or pseudoscience. It’s is science fiction. Also, KM is not science or pseudoscience. KM is methods and techniques to help achieve favorable business outcomes. Beyerstein’s criteria is cool. Lose the Dudley Moore ’10’ rankings, it’s not a beauty contest. KMers need to think like fire-breathing business mercenaries, not scientists! BTW, great to see the things I crowed about back-in-the-day on ACT-KM come true. Too bad the community is so confused and allergic to authentic KM leadership. I guess a bad listserv is better than no listserv. Merry Christmas! -j

P.S. Here’s your next KM Cluster:

[URL removed: advertising not relevant to topic comes perilously close to spam! - PL]

This is real KM. No time for pseudoscience debates…

Posted on December 22, 2009 at 11:57 PM | Comment permalink


While i dont agree with the pseudoscience part (i actually think theres much more to science than the stereotype we have created for the scientific process), i think overall you have got it down quite well. Though in large part i think some of these things are coming up from the thought that we dont really have a universal definition of knowledge and hence we cannot have a universal process for managing it. This leads to some of the things you have written about when talking about them generically so i feel.

Posted on December 23, 2009 at 12:42 PM | Comment permalink

Philosophy is another field that has some value in informing the theory and practice of KM.  For example, the distinction between ontology and epistemology highlighted by Dave Snowden in Cynefin is helpful in determining where traditional management/scientific tools are useful (and where they are dangerous).

I do wonder if Beyerstein’s critique is largely grounded in a modern/optimistic view of reason/epistemology...if so, its usefulness in developing a more robust understanding of KM may be limited.

Posted on January 01, 2010 at 08:11 AM | Comment permalink

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