"Knowledge management, meet epistemic rhetoric"

by Jamie MacKinnon
The Bank of Canada

presented at: The Canadian Association of Language and Learning conference
Canmore, Alberta
May 7, 2001

"We must not think to make a commodity of knowledge, to mark it like our broadcloth and our woolpacks." (Milton, Areopagitica)
As business gets more "knowledge intensive," increasing attention is being paid to how knowledge is created, how it's "shared" (a highly problematic term), and how it's applied. The term "knowledge management" entered the business lexicon in the 1990s. Much of what seems new to knowledge management is, it seems to me, old in rhetoric. And yet the term knowledge management reflects and distills concerns that are in fact critical in research organizations and knowledge-intensive enterprises. These concerns are addressed in part ­ but only in part ­ by rhetorical theory.

When I first started thinking about this topic, I assumed that Knowledge Management was a buzz phrase. Worse, an empty shell ­ little more than another term for a) organization learning, itself an opaque phrase that means (I think) learning related to work or b) technology for information storage and distribution. But as I read, I came to the conclusion that KM not only has some useful ideas about learning, "disseminating" knowledge, and "putting knowledge to work," but that its domain or purview is exactly that "country" that nonacademic writing research (e.g., Bazerman, Doheny-Farina) has sighted and visited, but still regards as a foreign (and perhaps exotic) land. And in some key respects, knowledge management theorists are people who are trying to understand some of the same issues as nonacademic writing researchers, but they're conducting their research "at home," and, for the most part, they don't pay any attention to writing, perhaps because they don't understand what writing is and does ­ especially its epistemic dimension.

The modest conclusion I've come to is that the issues examined by KM ­ how knowledge is created, how it's assessed, and how it gets put to work in business ­ can't be intelligently examined without a grounding in rhetoric, especially "epistemic rhetoric," and that the common failure of both KM and rhetoric, their inability to explain invention ­ is a wonderful point of anxiety from which to embark for further interdisciplary conversation.

The following sketch is meant to suggest some of my own uncertainties and anxieties. I chose the genre of the CBC radio conversation because I thought the tenor of such a staged conversation best allowed me to explore my initial thoughts on how two perspectives view some common ground. It's a rough draft of my earliest thinking, a starting point for what I hope is some long-term thinking and research. I'm also hoping that it sparks response. I'd be happy to keep up a conversation with anyone else who's interested.
CBC Host:


Innovation. Discovery. Knowledge management. It seems these days that at the heart of every discussion about business strategy is a concern about ideas and their application. What is innovation? Can knowledge really be "managed"? or "put to work"? 

Joining me in the Canmore studio today are two people who will help us struggle with these questions. They have different backgrounds and outlooks. 

On my left is Tom Vigour, Vice-president of research at the Innovation Institute. On my right is Mary Rigour, professor of rhetoric at Foothills University. Good afternoon to both of you. 

Perhaps I'll start with you, Tom. Why the focus on innovation? Why now? And what the heck is knowledge management anyway? 



In most economic models, capital, material and labour have been the three primary "inputs." Over the past decade, economist like Robert Solow and John Kendricks have come to understand the critical role of knowledge and its application to economic growth. The Patent Office in Ottawa receives 35,000 patent application every year ­ that's a hundred a day. In many respects, capital and material are less important constraints than they used to be. Labour's will always be a key constraint. But increasingly, the most interesting variable in the mix is knowledge. 

Knowledge management is a buzz phrase. Sometimes it connotes learning or "organizational learning" (with its collaborative dimensions). Sometimes it means something as basic as information management. Recently, the term knowledge management has come to touch on how knowledge gets generated in the first place, and how it gets put to work in businesses. 

Host: Mary, where does this leave you? I guess "rhetoric" and "economic growth" don't have much in common.
Mary: I'm not sure. Rhetoric is a major body of theory and it goes back a long way. Among other things, it deals with analysis and reasoning about things that are probable or contingent. Now that covers most aspects of business management.

Rhetoric is also the study of persuasion, of how we move other people to new beliefs and action. So rhetoric is a major body of theory, and it underlies many forms of reasoned prediction, including business projections, and it underlies a good deal of what goes into marketing and advertising as well.

Cicero believed rhetoric to be a practical art, something that helped folks cope with the exigencies of life, thus making them more productive. So in broad terms, I think rhetoric and economic growth do have something in common.

Host: OK. Let's talk about innovation. Tom, you spoke about knowledge management's interest in how knowledge gets generated.


Interest yes. Answers, maybe not. There's a lot of talk about the creation of knowledge, but it seems, well . . . you read about induction, and left brain, and heuristics, and "combination," and "tools to theories" and so forth, and at least we've moved beyond the focus on the "dissemination" of knowledge, but I'm not sure any of this tells us anything about how knowledge is created.
Well, maybe that's one area in which rhetoric can help. I don't think many people understand the role of words in invention, in ideation. Words aren't just containers into which you pour ideas; they're actually part and parcel of invention.
Tom: How so?
Well, language is not . . . how will I put this . . . language is not just the e-mail or the report, it's the stuff with which the thinking is done. You don't just pour your ideas into language and then send this package to someone to "open." Language is more a . . . a block of clay in which we find or develop ideas, kind of like a sculptor.
Tom: But don't we say what we have in our minds?


Often, sure. Especially for commonplaces such as "I'm going shopping," or "It's raining." But often not, especially in writing. In most complex or extended pieces of writing (some as little as a page in length) the knowledge in the final draft wasn't there to start with. It was developed en route. Writers don't simply get down on paper what they already know. They use writing as a tool, as a prosthesis, that allows them to think, to discover ideas, even to test ideas ­ all before it becomes a "message." That's why writing is sometimes so hard.

A guy called Donald McCloskey puts it this way: "The premise that you can split content from expression is wrong. They are yolk and white in a scrambled egg. Economically speaking, the production function for thinking cannot be written as the sum of two subfunctions, one 'producing results' and the other 'writing them up.' The function is not separable. You do not learn the details of an argument until writing it in detail, and in writing the details you uncover flaws in the fundamentals. . . ."



I'm beginning to think that before we attack 'innovation,' we need to go back to the notion of knowledge. What is knowledge? Tom, I expect that to a businessperson, knowledge is, well, operational, procedural . . . you know: how to build, how to ensure safety, how to develop a new drug, generally, how to go about developing or improving products and services.


Sure, that's a part of it. But it may be the least important part of it. To the extent that you can proceduralize knowledge is probably the extent to which you can automate a related process. And I don't think it's always feasible to put down on paper a procedure for how to invent a new drug. So no. Knowledge in business is a lot more than procedure. My definition is "understanding that works."

And knowledge is becoming increasingly abstract, even in business. Von Kkrogh, Ichigo and Nonaka are three knowledge management theorists who define knowledge as "justified true belief." They acknowledge both the explicit and the tacit facets of knowledge, and they pay a good deal of attention to the context of knowledge creation.

So "knowledge management" may be a bit of a buzz phrase, but it reflects business's attempt to come to grips with how to cultivate new ideas (this is the 'innovation' you hear so much about), how to get these ideas into corporate conversations where they are assessed, modified, kicked about, and then how to get the best of these ideas applied in the business.

Host: Mary, what's "knowledge" mean to you?


Horrible question. But first, let me respond to something Tom just said . . . two things in fact. He said that knowledge was increasingly abstract in business, and he said that ideas get "kicked about" and assessed in corporate conversations.

That reminds me that one of the key products of "epistemic rhetoric" is the hypothesis ­ a provisional, highly distilled explanation of how or why things happen. The hypothesis is abstract, but it's also a tool for evaluating data and for making predictions.

What's 'knowledge'? I have no idea. Knowledge is what we know. Knowing, to some rhetoricians such as Scott and Toulmin, is what you believe, in a given context, following reasoned debate.

And maybe there's implications here for business. One that interests me is how to cultivate argument or debate in a company and how to get useful knowledge out of it. It seems to me that many companies think of debate as nasty, or at least as something that doesn't happen outside the boardroom.



I suspect you're right. Even in my firm, one that specializes in research, I don't think there's enough argument, or even enough wild ranting going on. We're highly socialized beings, and we learn to behave in ways that meet the expectations of others. In so doing, something gets suppressed, something gets lost.

And sometimes it occurs to me that when we emphasize, or rather, when we require "interpersonal skills," "teamwork," "sharing" and so forth ­ as useful as these values are for most people most of the time ­ we tend to create an environment that is poor for mavericks and lone wolves.

Ditto writing. You know, there's a wonderful tension in writing. Writing's a social thing in that (with the exception of diaries and journals) it is other-directed. It needs a reader. But writing is also a very solitary thing: it's usually done alone.


In a research organization such as the one in which I work, I think it might pay to think about that tension, and to try to "get it right." Obviously knowledge somehow arises in thinking, and a lot of that thinking is done in a collaborative context, in speaking and listening, on the one hand, but on the other hand, a lot is done in a quiet office or on the walk home.

It would be interesting to get at this analytically. It would be interesting to map all the threads that feed into a new idea: the directed tasks, the constraints and requirements, the notekeeping, the debate, the application of tools, the reading, the informal chat, the various forms of writing, and so forth, and to . . . well, if not to deduce from this map where innovative thinking comes from, at least to get researchers to look at it and react. Which aspects are most fruitful? What are the implications for ideal sequencing? Etcetera.



You've reminded me of another idea of what knowledge is, and it comes to us from epistemology. It's that knowledge is "interpretation in context" (e.g., Daniel Bell). This can take the form of conceptualization, exegesis, argument and so forth.

Something I find interesting is the relationship between knowledge and action, or knowledge and change. A rhetorical view of language is that most public language is aimed at persuasion and change. This language draws on knowledge of course, but to the extent that it succeeds in persuading, it creates new knowledge elsewhere. And not the same knowledge that fed into the utterance or the text, but something quite different.

Peter Drucker gets at this in a book he wrote a while ago: "Knowledge is information that changes something or somebody ­ either by becoming grounds for actions, or by making an individual (or an institution) capable of different or more effective action."
[Attempting an early summary]. So, it would appear that "epistemic rhetoric" and "knowledge management" do have something in common. They both attempt to theoretize invention or ideation, and they both recognize that words move the world, that language moves people to act.
Tom: From my point of view that sounds fair. But a caveat: in business, it's not always words or language. At the invention or discovery stage, it's often code or formulae or models.
Host: If I may: let me put the question bluntly. How do people come up with new ideas?
I'd like to hear what rhetoric has to say. From my readings in knowledge management, I'd say there's a bit of a black box here. People talk about "fostering" innovation, and understanding the "conditions" for innovation, but, well, I'm not aware of any real explanation.


That's why I like our host's word "theoretize" ­ we theoretize invention. But that's just fancy talk for "we have no idea what's really going on." It is a black box.

I don't know of any explanation of ideation or invention, but there has been a lot of interesting work in the past 10 or 15 years on the many contexts of invention.

Here are three notions that come to mind that are critical to an understanding of ideation or invention, notions that are perhaps usefully mixed together. The first is "social cognition," the ability to perceive others, to anticipate their needs and responses in a highly complex, highly nuanced fashion. Social cognition is the individual's ability to sense and represent the "social context" that shapes a piece of discourse ­ a context that is extremely important and highly complex.

The second is kairos, which means a sense of time as well as a sense of proportion.

And the third is situation refers to a lot of things (including social context)

Each time and situation has its unique exigencies, and, abetted by one's motives these exigencies are the mother of invention. [Laughs.] Although I must say, what I've just said is terribly simplistic.



Funny you should say that. [Singing]: I say toMAYto; You say toMAHto; You say time-situation, and I say . . . [pause] "Ba."

The concept of ba was proposed by the Japanese philosopher Kitaro Nishida, and it's been picked up by KM theorists. I don't think it's all that unlike the time-situation you described Mary.

Ba is a kind of "shared space for emerging relationships" among the self, other people, places like offices and warehouses, ideas, needs, etc. Ba forms a context that, according to knowledge management theorists, "harbors meaning" (Nonaka and Konno, 1998, p. 40). Unlike the time-situation you mentioned, the ba isn't seen as requiring or demanding ­ you said "exigency" ­ but rather a platform from which knowledge can be built.

Ba is both a physical space and a mental space, and it can encompass a virtual space as well.

Bas work on different levels. For the individual employee, the ba is usually the team; for the team, it's usually the organization and for the organization, it's the market.



That's interesting. Wayne Brockriede talks about a "frame of reference shared optimally." What this means is that in arguing, people must share some ­ but not too much ­ presupposition. And Thomas Farrell talks about "social knowledge" which is ideas about relationships among "problems, persons, interests and actions." Interestingly I think, for people who work in business, is that this social knowledge is always characterized by potential, it has "motive," and this motive is always attached to one's understanding of other people, and this potential is realized in action or new knowledge.


This "optimal frame of reference" interests me. There's a guy at M.I.T. called Nicholas Negroponte who says that the best way to guarantee a steady stream of new ideas in a business is to make sure that each person in the organization is "as different as possible from the others." Only under these conditions, he says, "will people maintain varied perspectives and demonstrate their knowledge in different ways. There will be a lot of misunderstanding -- which is frequently not misunderstanding at all, but the root of a new idea."


So "context" may just be fancy talk for fundamental ignorance of cause. But context is important. I would have thought that you deal with quite different contexts. Isn't the main context of knowledge management that of business ­ markets, production, allocation, profit, etc. ­ and that of rhetoric, "civil society"? I would think this very important: the language and the ideas needed by business would be quite different from the language and ideas needed by citizens.
Mary: Well, yes. That's what many commentators on the left are on about. They see and fear a "corporatization" of discourse so that we can't even talk about the common good without recourse to biz-speak.


I disagree. Or at least I think this "corporatization" bit is overdone. The language required by citizens is the language of debate, of problem posing and problem solving, of reconciling interests, and of marketing ideas. And guess what the language of business focusses on? The same things: problem posing, problem solving, marketing products and services, etc.

But let me throw this in. I don't think we can talk generically about innovation or invention; I think we have quite different domains here, and each domain may have its own modes of discovery. Mary said that rhetoric deals with contingency and probability. That means there won't be a "solution" or even a "discovered answer." There is apt to be a "reasoned response." But in genetic research, say, "discovery" and "solutions" and "right answers" are possible.

Host: But in essence, innovation, or rather how new ideas arise, is still a black box. Is that right?


I think so. Some folks have called for invention, as its called in rhetoric, to be the focus of theory and practice. But even were it to be, we'd be poking and prodding it, promoting strategies to make it happen, and theoretizing it.

But maybe, at the end of the day, we don't want to look inside that box.

Host: Tom, Mary, what, if anything, are you going to take away from this?


One thing that Mary has brought to mind is the importance of writing. I think people in business, particularly people in research, need to understand writing as a process, a fundamental enabling process in knowledge creation. Mary said that writing is not simply a way to communicate new ideas; new ideas occur in writing. I find that persuasive.

And it occurs to me that there are huge implications. I'm wondering if we might makes some significant gains in terms of innovation ­ at least in my firm ­ if our researchers had this understanding. It seems to me that if you view writing as merely transcribing, you won't get all you can out of writing.

If you view writing as a means of posing better problems, and of working your way through problems, you're going to develop or find ways of doing just that.

Mary: That's part of what we call developing a more effective writing process.


A related thought is that while knowledge may not be amenable to being "managed," the research agenda in a firm can be managed; in fact in a research business, the research agenda is the most critical management tool. Perhaps it's here where we can look closely at the enablers and the barriers to knowledge creation and application.

In my company, I think it might be useful to do an audit of all the threads in the tapestry of knowledge creation: the needs of the senior decision makers; how these needs get translated into the research agenda; the models and the tools that are used; the spaces such as the labs and offices and the gym . . . everything that constrains or feeds or touches upon knowledge creation.

It might be interesting to have several people with different perspectives conduct separate audits ­ that might show some critical differences, differences worth exploring.

Host: Mary?


Well for starters, I'd like to expand the purview of epistemic rhetoric.

It seems to me that we got a great start in the 17th and 18th centuries with Descartes and Locke and Vico, but since then, epistemology has become deracinated ­ it seems unattached to actual fields of human endeavour.

In our part of the world, Robert Scott revived interest in the epistemic nature of rhetoric, and then in the 1980s, with what came to be called "nonacademic writing," I think we saw some really promising work on how knowledge arises and is used in government and business.

But I now think that nonacademic writing is a horrible term. "Nonacademic." It's like the way Americans use the phrase "foreign film" ­ it covers the majority of films actually made, but for some reason, it's "other," it's "non." Nonacademic writing is probably 90% of all writing that gets done, but the term suggests something odd and marginal.

I'd also like to do some more thinking about the whole notion of invention. I've been stuck in a rhetorical universe for most of my life, and I tend to think of invention as "new ideas in words." But obviously, invention or knowledge creation is much more than that. It involves math and symbols and interaction and misunderstanding and who knows what else. I'd like to think about these elements, as well as the "ba."

Finally, on my own turf, I've got to do some more thinking about what we call "writing in the disciplines." We skated around the meaning of the word "knowledge," but it occurs to me that in each discipline, there's not only a body of theory and knowledge for the student to master, but real problems ­ knowledge that's required for the profession to move ahead. It seems to me that we should be offering ­ much earlier in the undergraduate curriculum ­ real problems that require real new knowledge. I've seen too many undergraduate programs that offer little more than canned problems, and then they graduate to jobs in which they're expected to innovate.

Host: Mary Rigour, Tom Vigour, I'd like you both for joining me in the Canmore studio today. 

Abridged annotated bibliography

Agnew, Lois. "The 'Perplexity' of George Campbell's Rhetoric: The Epistemic Function of Common Sense," in Rhetorica, Vol. 18, Number 1, Winter 2000, pp 79-101.

Nicely summarizes how Campbell links rhetoric's epistemic function with the idea of social knowledge in communities as they act to make collective judgments.
Berlin, Isaiah. "One of the Boldest Innovators in the History of Human Thought" in The New York Times magazine, Nov. 23, 1969.
An insightful synthesis and appreciation of Giambattista Vico's epistemology. Vico's "central principle" that "men can truly understand best what they have made themselves" has implications for organizational learning, as does the core idea (pace Descartes) that rhetorical invention precedes truth.
Brockriede, Wayne. "Where is argument?" in the Journal of the American Forensic Association 11 (Spring 1975) pp 179-182.
Brockriede proposes six characteristics of effective argument.
Davenport, T. H. and L. Prusak. Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage What They Know (1998). Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press. Dixon, Nancy M. Common Knowledge: How Companies Thrive By Sharing What They Know (2000). Boston Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press.
Highly touted book briefly mentions but pays scant attention to the creation of knowledge; implicitly reflects "container" view of knowledge and focuses on "transfer."
Drucker, Peter. The New Realities. Harper & Row, 1989
A prescient (though dated) call to use chaos and complex systems theory to understand the global economy, and a proposition that the "Knowledge Society" is a "Post-Business Society." Drucker suffers from America-centredness and an unselfconscious belief in the myth of progress.
Gehrke, Pat J. "Teaching argumentation existentially: Argumentation pedagogy and theories of rhetoric as epistemic" in Argumentation and Advocacy 35 (Fall 1998), pp 76-86.
"By infusing argumentation pedagogy with the perspective of rhetoric as epistemic we come to a position of teaching argumentation as a multiplicity of logics and a plurality of truths that can be engaged dialogically, rather than oppositionally."
Gigerenzer, Gerd. Adaptive Thinking: Rationality in the Real World (2000). New York: Oxford University Press.
Motivated by an interest in the psychology of rationality, Gigernezer proposes a theory of "ecological, bounded, and social rationality."
Harvard Business Review on Knowledge Management (anthology, editor unknown, 1998). Boston Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press.
Atheoretical and ungrounded, this glib anthology elides many concerns: the nature of ideation, the nature of learning, the nature of the individual, etc.
Malhotra, Yogesh. "Knowledge Management in Inquiring Organizations," in the Proceedings of the 3rd Americas Conference on Information Systems, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, August 15-17, 1997, pp 293-295.

Negroponte, Nicholas. http://www.media.mit.edu/~nicholas/Wired/WIRED4-01.html

Nonaka, Ikujiro and Hirotaka Takeuchi. The Knowledge Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation (1995). New York: Oxford University Press.

Scott, Robert L. "On Viewing Rhetoric as Epistemic" in Central States Speech Journal XVIII (Feb. 1967 pp 9-17.

Re-introduced American readers to an old idea: that language is by nature epistemic.
Von Krogh, Georg, Kazuo Ichijo and Ikujiro Nonaka. Enabling Knowledge Creation: How to Unlock the Mystery of Tacit Knowledge and Release the Power of Innovation (2000). New York: Oxford University Press.
Reductive in its understanding of what knowledge is and how knowledge creation can be proceduralized, this book is nonetheless valuable for its attention to the "enabling context" of knowledge creation.