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Intellectual capital: West-bound or East-bound?
Article Type: Response piece From: Journal of Intellectual Capital, Volume 9, Issue 2.
A response to Karl-Erik Sveiby's critique
We thank Professor Sveiby for taking up our gauntlet about the conceptualization of knowledge. We especially want to thank him for finding the right words to phrase the real question in this debate. We totally agree with him that the dominance of reified metaphors among KM /IC scholars and practitioners is what really matters and that has been exactly our motive for writing the article. We welcome the four additional mysteries Sveiby raises as valuable contributions to our list of powerful questions. If we want to change KM practice we need to know why scholars and practitioners again and again are drown towards thing, information, resource and capital metaphors.
Even though we agree on the main question, Sveiby chooses to use rather strong language to phrase his critique on our article. We suspect this is in part due to the fact that we did not honor his contribution to the non-reification view of knowledge, for which we apologize. His book The New Organizational (Sveiby, 1997) book contains an excellent chapter about his view on knowledge in which knowledge is defined as a capacity to act. This clearly shows a non-reification view on knowledge, for which Sveiby must be honored. His latest work on the role of knowledge among Australian Aboriginals a valuable contribution to knowledge management theory and practice from a humanistic, non-reification perspective (Sveiby and Skuthorpe, 2007).
We would like to continue the dialogue on this important topic by responding to three specific issues that Sveiby raises in his critique: the positioning of his book The New Organizational Wealth, the influence of Western philosophy on the Easterner Nonaka, and the way Western and Eastern thinking about knowledge can be typified.
The metaphors in The New Organizational Wealth
In our article there were three statements about The New Organizational Wealth. There was only one direct statement about the book, the other two were indirect statements. We would like to look at all three statements more closely. The direct statement stated that in the book “knowledge is perceived as an intangible asset and as human capital, internal structure capital and external structure capital” (Andriessen and Van den Boom, 2007, p. 643). We apologize for the fact that we have misquoted the work with respect to the words “human capital”, “internal structure capital” and “external structure capital”. These terms do not appear in the book. The word capital is indeed only used in combinations such as financial capital, not in relation to knowledge. In addition we apologize that this direct statement about the book does not make visible its epistemological assumptions. These assumptions are based on the work of Polanyi (1974) and Wittgenstein (1995) who have a non-reification perspective on knowledge. The definition in the book of knowledge as the capacity to act is clearly a non-reification definition.
However, in The New Organizational Wealth; Managing and Measuring Knowledge-based Assets, knowledge is also perceived as an asset. The expressions “intangible assets”, “intellectual assets” and “knowledge-based assets” are used 173 times, including in the sub-title of the book. These expressions are based on the knowledge as asset metaphor, which is a reification metaphor. It is inevitable that authors use various, often contradictory or competing, conceptualizations in the same text. This happens in other KM publications as well (Andriessen, 2006). Morgan (1996) refers to the “metaphors-in-use” that people use, that may be different from the formal metaphors expressed in their definitions. Highlighting these metaphors-in-use is the purpose of our metaphor research. A metaphor review of chapter 3 of The New Organizational Wealth entitled “What is Knowledge? What is Competence?” shows that the author uses a variety of reification and non-reification metaphors including knowledge as thoughts and feelings (“tacit knowledge”), knowledge as light (“unreflected knowledge”, p. 31), knowledge as a process (“the process-of-knowing”, p. 31), knowledge as a tool (“intellectual tools”, p.33), and knowledge as an object (“gather new knowledge”, p. 31; “losing old knowledge”, p. 31; “knowledge can be distributed”, p. 34).
The other two statements we made about the book are indirect statements. The second statement was that all publications in the top seven of the Serenko and Bontis list (including Sveiby’s) conceptualize knowledge as some form of resource. What me meant was that, among other conceptualizations of knowledge, the resource metaphor is present in all seven books. In the case of Sveiby (1997), this metaphor is clearly reflected by the frequent use of the term “intangible assets” because an asset is a special form of resource. Our third statement was that in the seven books two additional metaphors are dominant: the knowledge as information and the knowledge as thoughts and feelings metaphor. In The New Organizational Wealth the knowledge as information metaphor is used only a few times, for example in the quote “…information (explicit knowledge) is only one element of competence.” (p. 36). The knowledge as thoughts and feelings metaphor is used intensively as reflected by the common use of the term “tacit knowledge” and verbs like “to articulate knowledge” (p. 34), or “to make knowledge explicit” (p. 34).
Nonaka and Western philosophy
The second issue we would like to explore is the issue of the influence of Western philosophy on Eastern thinkers. Sveiby states that Nonaka’s works are primarily inspired by Western philosophers such as Polanyi, Plato and Kant and asks himself: “Why did an Eastern scholar feel the need to base his works his works on Western philosophy, if ancient Eastern philosophy offers viable or better alternatives?”. We tend to disagree that this is the case. Of course, Nonaka is regularly in discussion with Western thinkers and many more. However, when reading The Knowledge-creating Company (Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995), the influence of Asian concepts in general and Japanese philosophy in particular on Nonaka’s approach and methodology cannot be denied either. Nonaka refers substantially to Japanese philosophy and Eastern connotations of knowledge. Besides, Nonaka is partly also very critical towards Western rationalism, in particular regarding the Cartesian split between subject and object in contrast to the Eastern concept of knowledge as indwelling and ascending. Epistemologically, Nonaka drew on Polanyi’s distinction between tacit and explicit knowledge, as far as tacit knowledge is “personal, context-specific, and therefore hard to formalize and communicate” (Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995). However, Nonaka goes beyond Polanyi’s tacit knowledge as epistemological discourse and draws a managerial model of knowledge conversion as a continuous interaction between tacit and explicit knowledge within a social context. Tacit knowledge is positioned within a Japanese context and transferred to a Japanese model of innovation with far-reaching consequences and countless new concepts: oneness of mind and body, whole personality, oneness of self and other, valuation of the embodiment of direct experience, mental models of individuals and groups, just to name a few. In his criticism towards as well as in his acceptance of Western concepts, Nonaka is taken up in a process of moving back and forth between Western and Eastern concepts, whereby as often happens in cultural exchanges borrowed concepts become airborne and contract new dimensions and meaning in the receiving culture.
This process of inculturalisation regarding the concept tacit knowledge into the own cultural background is in our opinion obvious at least at four levels. First, Nonaka’s concept of tacit knowledge and the “corporatization” of the tacit/explicit dimensions goes beyond Polanyi’s viewpoint. Meng Li and Fei Gao (2003) emphasize that Nonaka and Takeuchi used Polanyi’s dichotomy of knowledge as a theoretical prototype to launch new management perspectives on the knowledge-creating company within a Japanese milieu. Second, Nonaka breaks down the “tacitness” of knowledge into two parts: implicitness and real tacitness. Real tacit knowledge, according to Polanyi’s argument, is ineffable and hard to communicate. In Nonaka’s approach, however, tacit knowledge includes implicitness, idiosyncratic in the Japanese society (Meng Li and Fei Gao, 2003). Third, Nonaka expanded the model of tacit and explicit knowledge into broader areas of social contexts, as effective knowledge creation (tacit and explicit) depends inextricably on the enabling context as a “shared space that fosters emerging relationships” (von Krogh et al., 2000). Fourth, it is also striking that in Nonaka’s model of knowledge-creation, the use of symbols and metaphors as concrete representations of ideas and concepts is preponderant. According to Nonaka and Takeuchi, figurative or symbolic language is of particular importance and constitutive for concept creation. Symbols and metaphors create a knowledge vision and a map of expectations. The role of symbols and metaphors in Polanyi’s work is mainly interpretative, and not constitutive in the process of rendering still undiscovered meanings and values.
Sveiby concludes 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 … .”. Indeed, the issue of reification of knowledge is also our concern, and has been our starting point. Moreover, what we also underlined was that specific notions of knowledge dialectics of being and non-being, unity of body and mind, etc. unique for Asian knowledge philosophies (but not exclusive Asian) and valued by Nonaka, could be of utmost importance for the emergence of Asian contributions in the field of Intellectual Capital thinking. This appeal to necessary Asian IC contributions is not inspired by as Sveiby states “…a deeply rooted Western pre-conceived opinion repeated endlessly since colonial times..”, whereby Asian and Western thinking are described along the lines of holistic versus procedural thinking. On the contrary, we presume that in situations of cultural exchange borrowed ideas and values contract new connotations, as we demonstrated in our research about the reception of Western philosophy within the Arab-Islamic world in the twentieth century (Van den Boom, 1993). Besides the fact that there are strong differences and variations in Western and Eastern concepts of knowledge and epistemologies, we welcome any exchange back and forth in between IC thinkers from different cultural backgrounds. East and West meet each other at various levels and ideas are radiated with the speed of light. The exchange of ideas in the field of IC will hopefully contribute to the emergence of non-Western IC concepts that will invite us to research cross-culturally to what extent concepts of knowledge economy and Intellectual Capital are culture-bound and rooted in Western presumptions. When these concepts emerge, they will be very different from Western contributions. In the West, we will only recognize them as valuable when we are aware of our own unconscious, Western conceptualizations of knowledge and the metaphors-in-use that structure our thinking. This requires self-reflection and contemplation from every KM/IC author and practitioner in the field.
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Meng Li and Fei Gao (2003), “Why Nonaka highlights tacit knowledge: a critical review”, Journal of Knowledge Management, Vol. 7, pp. 614
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Daniel Andriessen, Marien van den Boom INHOLLAND Centre for Research in Intellectual Capital