East and West do meet - that is the real issue!

Journal of Intellectual Capital

ISSN: 1469-1930

Article publication date: 18 April 2008


Sveiby, K.-E. (2008), "East and West do meet - that is the real issue!", Journal of Intellectual Capital, Vol. 9 No. 2. https://doi.org/10.1108/jic.2008.25009baf.001



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

East and West do meet - that is the real issue!

Article Type: Critique Piece From: Journal of Intellectual Capital, Volume 9, Issue 2.

A critique of Andriessen, D.G. and Boom, Marien van den, (2007), “East is East, and West is West, and (n)ever its intellectual capital shall meet”

With their article in JIC, Vol. 8 No 4, “East is East, and West is West”, and (n)ever its intellectual capital shall meet, Daniel Andriessen and Marien van den Boom intend to start a dialogue about the differences between Western and Eastern cultures in the way they conceptualize knowledge, and to discuss the implications of these differences for global intellectual capital (IC) theory and practice.

Their analysis adopts Andriessen’s (2006) systematic metaphor analysis of three works by well-known KM/IC authors by six further works from a list of most cited publications in three KM/IC journals compiled by Serenko and Bontis (2004). The metaphor analysis is focused on the authors’ conceptualisations of knowledge and IC in order to identify common Western conceptualizations of knowledge in the IC literature. Eastern conceptualisations are presented as a review of philosophical knowledge conceptualizations in the main streams of Eastern philosophy.

The analysis aims to underpin their argument that the KM/IC fields in the East and West are coming from different philosophical origins and that we need a dialogue about the differences. While I agree that dialogue is good and necessary in the KM/IC field, I find their methodological approach quite problematic, because it causes a failure to raise the true issues.

Serenko and Bontis (2004) made several ranking lists, and since Andriessen and v.d. Boom do not publish the one they used, I have chosen a list that fits the description: ”seven of the first nine publications were from the USA or Europe”. They state that, ”All seven publications conceptualize knowledge as some form of resource”, and exemplify by quotations from the books. Their claim is that the Western authors conceptualise knowledge as a form of capital and/or as information. A fourth conceptualisation, knowledge-as-thoughts-and-feelings, dominated Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995), but it had influenced only one of the Western works, Hansen et al. (1999). Based on these data they argue that the dominant philosophy among Western authors is the knowledge-as-object metaphor.

Problem: the method

The fifth work in Table I is Sveiby (1997). Andriessen and v.d. Boom quote the terms “human capital”, “internal structure capital” and “external structure capital” and claim that they originate from that book. This is incorrect. In the book I argue against using the term capital in conjunction with knowledge and I suggest that the terms “competence”, “internal structure” and “external structure” are closer to the essence of the concept of knowledge. The word “capital” is used only in combinations such as “financial capital” while “Intellectual Capital” is not referred to at all. The work consistently argues against reification of knowledge and the knowledge-as-information conceptualisation.

Table I The nine most frequently KM/IC cited publications based on The Normalized Citation Impact Index

In Table I there are three works, which advocate a non-reification view on knowledge, if one excludes Hansen et al., who express a more balanced view. They are Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995), Nonaka (1994), and Sveiby (1997). Contrary to what Andriessen and van den Boom (2007) claims, Sveiby (1997) argues against the common Western notion of knowledge-as-object. Based on Polanyi (1958) and Wittgenstein (1995), (Sveiby (1997) makes a clear distinction between information, which can be treated as an object on the one hand and knowledge on the other. In Chapter 3 pp. 29-39 knowledge is conceptualised as a “Capacity to Act”. Knowledge is characterised as tacit, individual, action-oriented and constantly changing, and interpretations “are based on experience, context and situations and are colored by emotions”, (p. 41). Polanyi (1958) is the same philosophical source that inspired Nonaka (1994) for his seminal SECI model. Sveiby (1997) distinguishes and compares two approaches; an information-focused strategy, where knowledge is treated as an object and a knowledge-focused strategy, where knowledge is treated as a capacity to act. The first type of strategy uses information as the vehicle for sharing of knowledge, the second uses tradition, p. 45. The distinction precedes Hansen et al.’s (1999) distinction between a codification strategy and personalization strategy.

How a “systematic metaphor analysis” of Sveiby (1997) can yield such grave errors is beyond me. Obviously, an analysis based on metaphors analysis requires rigorous control of quoted concepts and words. I checked only one other work on the list, Hansen et al. (1999), and found the term they used there to be people-to-document, not “person-to-document” as quoted by Andriessen and v.d. Boom.

In the analysis of the Eastern conceptualisations of knowledge, the authors present a sweeping walk-through of mainstream philosophies, but no metaphor analysis, due to scarce non-Western literature on KM/IC. Because the data are partly incorrect and furthermore come from two such different sources a proper analysis is not possible; it only serves to feed a deeply rooted Western pre-conceived opinion repeated endlessly since colonial times: the West ”thingifies” and applies “procedural-linear thinking”, while the East is “self-transcending” and “holistic”. Andriessen & v.d. Boom acknowledge that their analysis is “broad and grossly oversimplified”, but there must be limits. A systematic metaphor analysis that places Sveiby (1997) in a category dominated by knowledge-as-capital and knowledge-as-information metaphors cannot have been applied very systematically.

The real issue

Andriessen and v.d. Boom do bring up a very interesting topic, however, but they miss the real issue, which is that little in terms of differences between Eastern and Western perspectives are to be seen, neither in KM/IC journals nor in practice. KM/IC scholars may come from different geographical origins, but they cite primarily works from reification paradigms, at least in the English language KM/IC journals. However, there are exceptions and they are “mysteries” (Alvesson, 1995) worth exploring.

For the first mystery, look no further than the list in Table I. It is, as Andriessen and Boom say, dominated by Westerners with a knowledge-as-an-object perspective, but there are two exceptions: The Easterner Nonaka has two works on the most cited list, inspired primarily by Western philosophers, such as Polanyi, Plato and Kant, and the Westerner Sveiby (1997) represents a non-reification paradigm based on Polanyi and Wittgenstein. Why did an Eastern scholar feel the need to base his works on Western philosophy, if ancient Eastern philosophy offers viable or better alternatives?

Why is Sveiby’s work the only one among the most cited in the KM/IC journals with a Western non-reification perspective? Why do Western KM/IC scholars undervalue Western philosophers with non-reification perspectives like Foucault, Habermas, Heidegger, Kant, Latour, Polanyi, and Wittgenstein? Also, critical perspectives are conspicuous by their absence; Wilson’s (2002) excellent paper, “The nonsense of knowledge management”, does not even make it to Serenko’s and Bonti’s (2004) top 30 list.

Yet another mystery is why there are few Asia-based scholars, who write from a non-reification perspective in English language KM/IC journals? There is a small cluster of Japanese scholars inspired by Nonaka, but where are the others? Why has Nonaka’s non-reification perspective not received more of a following in more than ten years in the supposedly so different East? Do Eastern KM/IC scholars with a non-reification perspective publish their works only in Japanese, Chinese and Hindi? Or, do they not exist?

Finally, let’s look at the practice: There are zillions of published texts from both East and West on the English language internet about of implementations of IT systems for IC/KM and balanced score cards, where knowledge is treated as information, but very little about KM/IC implementations with a humanistic perspective or coming from a non-reification perspective. Why is the non-reification perspective so invisible in practice? Do implementations not exist?

I believe that the issue worth a dialogue is not so much about the differences between Western and Eastern philosophies of knowledge, but why the knowledge-as-information and knowledge-as-object paradigms so persistently dominate the KM/IC field in both East and West; among practitioners as well as among practitioners.

Karl-Erik SveibyProfessor, Hanken Business School, Finland


Alvesson, M. (1995), Management of Knowledge-Intensive Companies, Walter de Gruyter & Co., New York, NY

Andriessen, D.G. (2006), “On the metaphorical nature of intellectual capital: a textual analysis”, Journal of Intellectual Capital, Vol. 7, pp. 93110

Andriessen, D.G. and van den Boom, M. (2007), “East is East, and West is West, and (n)ever its intellectual capital shall meet”, Journal of Intellectual Capital, Vol. 8 No. 4

Hansen, M.T., Nohria, N. and Tierney, T. (1999), “What’s your strategy for managing knowledge?”, Harvard Business Review, March-April, pp. 10616

Nonaka, I. (1994), “A dynamic theory of organizational knowledge creation”, Organization Science, Vol. 5, pp. 1437

Nonaka, I. and Takeuchi, H. (1995), The Knowledge-creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation, Oxford University Press, New York, NY

Polanyi, M. (1958), Personal Knowledge, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London

Serenko, A. and Bontis, N. (2004), “Meta-review of knowledge management and intellectual capital literature. Citation impact and research productivity rankings”, Knowledge and Process Management, Vol. 11, pp. 18598

Sveiby, K.E. (1997), The New Organizational Wealth: Managing and Measuring Knowledge-based Assets, Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, CA

Wilson, T.D. (2002), “The nonsense of ‘knowledge management’”, Information Research, Vol. 8 No. 1

Wittgenstein, L. (1995), Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell, Oxford (orignally published 1953)