Dec 19, 2008

The value of a rose... rising above objectivism and subjectivism

A week ago, I wrote a post about an interesting article by Ard Huizing, concerning objectivism in information management. The paper I discuss below is the follow-up of that paper, and treats subjectivism in relation to objectivism. The former paper clearly describes the merits and deficits of an objectivist approach toward information management, using the neoclassical supply/demand model. Objective knowledge or truth does not exist, hence, we turn to the subjectivists: knowledge is sense-making, and is contextual.

We are taught often not to deal with subjectivist ideas, we still want to measure everything, define everything, monetize, calculate, etc... in order to grasp the complexities of organizations and the world. But we cannot always do that, and sometimes is not even wise to do that, because it only shows a very limited view of the world, which shows itself differently to each individual. Subjectivist learning and information "management" theories come in handy then, but that is just the other side of the same coin. The conclusion, therefore, is of course that both approaches are needed in information management and learning..

Defining subjectivism

The funny thing about objectivist theories is that itself can be defined more objectively, and subjetivist theories allow for more interpretation. Objectivism is a not so ambiguous, it seems that there is some consensus about its definition, or truth, regardless of the context. Subjectivism then, still is a bit vague to me, its just that it seems more like an intuition or feeling rather than a clearly demarcated theory. Which is not good or bad, I think both approaches are needed to deal with the world.

If objectivist criticize subjectivism because of lack of definition, is that very understandable: objectivist try to capture knowledge in preferrably one definite set of words or figures (for instance the metal "Copper"; (Symbol Cu) A ductile, malleable, reddish-brown metallic element that is an excellent conductor of heat and electricity and is widely used for electrical wiring, water piping, and corrosion-resistant parts, either pure or in alloys such as brass and bronze. Atomic number 29; atomic weight 63.54; melting point 1,083°C; boiling point 2,595°C; specific gravity 8.96; valence 1, 2.).

Subjectivism allows different interpretations (by definition?), depending on context and person, which means that if subjectivism allows defining itself, it does not exist. Funny eh: if you can define it, it does not exist... Lots of things come to mind now, such as the Einsteins relativity theory, which showed a century ago that even in pure science, the quality or state of a particle is relative to the state of another, meaning that space (length, width, height) and time cannot be seen independently. Another way of saying it is by example: "if you were to travel back and forth in space for 20 yrs at 0.9990c and came back to the earth, the earth would have aged 448 yrs…".

Especially relative aspects are very hard to determine and deal with, so our preference for dealing with society without taking these into account, is understandable. Still.. lest we forget that it is not the whole picture, not at all..

Quotes from the text

Below some quotes will follow I picked from the text;

Hence, there is no other way than to combine objectivism and subjectivism into a comprehensive, integrative approach to information management.

Codification can be helpful in ‘transferring’ knowledge, but people still impute their meanings on information. Searching for universal laws, objectivism cannot deal with human sense making, the possibility of interpretation differences among people, and context as the interpretative lens through which experiences are read. Subjectivism is built upon these notions.

I use subjectivism as an umbrella term for all of those schools of thought and theories that depart from the idea that for knowledge development, we should focus on human beings and see them as acting on the world through sense making, and in that way modifying the context they live in.

There is, however, a growing awareness that information and knowledge are social phenomena rather than economic objects.

As a philosophical tradition opposing objectivism, subjectivism stands for “supplying an alternative account in which human experience and understanding instead of objective truth” occupies central stage (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980: x)... Whereas objectivism is directed towards the external aspects of understanding, its internal aspects are the primary domain of subjectivism.

What motivates subjectivism is the awareness that understanding, truth, and meaning are relative to the cultural and physical context people live in as well as to their mental frameworks of how the world functions (Putnam, 1983).

The meaning the Papuas have given to cricket is neither objective nor personal, but intersubjective. They have jointly made sense of the foreign game, which is now common knowledge. In their context, in their social practice, this common knowledge is true. The Papua example furthermore illustrates that truth and true knowledge are always dependent on how people experientially understand their worlds, which is dependent on what people find meaningful and significant to their lives. In turn, what people find important is not solely reliant on their rational objectivist knowledge, but also on their imagination, intuitions, emotions, values, beliefs, experiences and ambitions.

The fundamental concern of subjectivism is to restore ‘the balance’ between the world of objects and subjects. We are part of the environment and as such, we change it and are changed by it.

Hence, in subjectivism, understanding, truth and meaning come from ongoing interaction with the physical environment and with other people. When developing knowledge relevant to practice, we should not focus so much on the inherent properties of objects, but rather on their interactional features (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Interactional properties are the intersubjective meanings given to objects that arise out people making sense of their world in situated processes of human communication and negotiation, reflecting what they believe is important to their private and organizational lives.

Objectivist knowledge represents a rose by its inherent properties, the characteristics of a rose that are independent of any human observer, such as thorns. However, nobody gives roses to a loved one because they have thorns, but because they are mutually understood as tokens of love. When both giver and receiver attach that symbolic meaning to roses, the message comes across. Objectivists are right when they claim that objects exist in an objective reality independently of human will and thought. However, we do not construct objects themselves - a rose is still a rose -, but our interactions with them (Tsoukas, 2005). Understanding, truth and meaning are therefore neither fixed nor entirely residing in objects, waiting to be ‘conveyed’ and ‘extracted’, but are dynamically and socially negotiated and constructed. Being a symbol of love is not an inherent property of roses, but an interactional property that has emerged from people’s imagination. We learn to understand such meanings by engagingly interacting with the world. We learn by doing.

Every organization or information system constrains and enables the behavior of its members and is, simultaneously, continually recreated and reshaped in and through the actions of its members. In short, the object and the subject co-constitute each other; they make each other possible.

Objects become “affiliated objects” (Suchman, 2005), when they, for instance, help people build cohesiveness as a group and help create, sustain and value identity; when they stir people’s imagination, creativity and, thus, enthusiasm; when they allow people to intersubjectively learn and develop situated knowledge by telling each other stories about their experiences; when they enable people to enact a part of the world, much in the same way as the Papuas have appropriated the cricket game.

The notion of sociality is helpful in explaining why they choose to do so and why some objects are more attractive than others.

Subjectivist information management means understanding social practices and object-centered sociality. Creating an information management identity upon such understandings requires more than knowing objects’ inherent properties, as objectivists tell us. Apart from, for instance, knowing what the inherent possibilities and impossibilities of technologies are - what technologies in and of themselves can and cannot do – information managers should be aware of their interactional features to learn how the intersubjective meanings people attach to objects determine why, how and to what degree these objects are actually used.

Reflecting the ambition to theorize on dynamic individual and social processes, subjectivists prefer verbs, not nouns. They favor words such as understanding, sense making, informing, knowing and learning.

In objectivism, communication consists of singular information exchanges between people maintaining anonymous relationships. Human interaction and communication are stripped down to what is considered its essence – the transaction of disembodied objects. In this ‘informational’ approach to communication, discrete objects are transferred from an active sender to a passive receiver, the conduit metaphor that is relevant only when the meaning of the words exchanged is fixed and not amenable to any human interpretation and sense making.

Subjectivists underline that truths, understandings and meanings are anything but fixed in real life, and are instead dependent upon situated processes of human interaction and negotiation. People’s mental frameworks, their unarticulated common knowledge and their context determine what is considered to be true, how they understand their contexts and which meanings are constructed, all co- constitutively related to the larger world.

A subjectivist definition of communication and interaction that takes this possibility explicitly into account is: “a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired and transformed” (Carey, 1989: 23). Communication and interaction are about generating intersubjective meanings, mutual understandings and non-anonymous, socially binding relationships.

In meaningful communication, people constantly switch between asking and responding, making and giving sense, verbally and non-verbally. In this regard, mediating human communication by ICT or any other artifact disconnects us, feeding the impression that information supply and demand can be divided into divorced domains, and managed separately.

From a supply-side perspective, a newspaper can be called a data, information or knowledge system. Knowledgeable journalists have crafted their articles, so why could not we say a newspaper is a knowledge system? From a demand-side view, such naming does not make any ‘difference’ and, hence, is not informative. The newspaper is still a newspaper and whether or not it ‘makes a difference’ can be left only to the discretion of the reader. Hence, it is impossible to predefine what the right information for the right person is and at what time and in which format that should be delivered, as is assumed in the objectivist definition of information management. We can provide people with “structured data” (Boland, 1987); what they do with it can only be partly suggested by others. For the same reason, what information economists call information – everything that can be digitized (Shapiro and Varian, 1999) - subjectivists would describe as data.

Another difference between objectivism and subjectivism relates to the economic theory of uncertainty. In more recent developments in economics, information – data really – is defined as reduction in uncertainty (Babe, 1994). Here, information is attributed the role of increasing rationality in human decision making. If all information would be available, there would be no uncertainty anymore. However, people are usually not capable of processing all information required for rational decision making and are therefore boundedly rational at best (Simon, 1976). Furthermore, people are inclined to use information opportunistically (Williamson, 1975); they appropriate information in ways that suit their social practices (Putnam, 1983); they always ask for more information, and then not use it (Feldman & March, 1981); for justification purposes, they gather information after the decision has been made (Weick, 1995); the medium can affect the form and content of a message (Trevino et al., 1990); yes, even how people are dressed can be important to how they use information (Fiske, 1991). Information is a much more complex phenomenon than economists can handle.

Saying that truth, understanding and meaning are intersubjectively constructed implies that knowledge not only resides in individual minds, but also in people’s relationships. There is a reality beyond individuality, intersubjectively constructed.

Individual knowledge is inextricably related to the social practices that are created and sustained in communities, networks and organizations. Individual knowledge obtains its significance only by knowing the habits, norms, values and dynamics of the context in which it is situated.

A typical definition of knowledge or knowing that fits these requirements is a “set of distinctive evaluations”, which is “a toolkit of distinctions the […] actors have ready-to-hand to facilitate and shape their rational and agentic practice as they construct and reconstruct their context”.

Communication, interaction, knowing and learning ‘in action’ are the dynamic processes that generate and are generated by the social practices in which they occur.

Objectivists assume that knowledge can be fully captured in objects and that these objects have meaning in themselves.

Technologies do not construct meaning; they distribute data that patiently await human sense making, no more, no less.

In short, information and knowledge are human and social phenomena in subjectivism that cannot be separated from ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’. Nonetheless, economists do have a point when they say that codification and objectification are needed for deriving economic value from information and knowledge.

Organizational implications, 4 implications

Firstly, compared with objectivism, subjectivism moves our attention away from the larger entity to the organization’s social practices and the “individuals-embedded-in-practice” (Tsoukas, 2005). Transcending the divide between objects and subjects, the individual-engaged-in-practice should therefore be our focal point of attention. Information management can help support the communication and interaction processes through which these individuals generate their social practices and, in that way, their organizations and societies.

The second implication of subjectivism for theory and practice is methodological... We have to build our organizing knowledge on what people actually do when they realize social practices, rather than on theories abstracted from practice, such as the perfect market model.. For studying actual information behavior, we need different methodologies from the ones which are applied in objectivist model-theoretic approaches or in top-down organizational policies and strategies that are based on such approaches. Ethnographic and participant observer methodologies are prime candidates.. Virtual ethnography is a recent development...

The third implication of subjectivism for managing and organizing is that focusing on actual information behavior in social practices opens the door to the many other forms of interaction that people increasingly use to shape their information behavior, within or exceeding the boundaries of the organization they work for. Market-like exchange is not denied in subjectivism, but complemented with such other forms of organizing as “intensional networks” (Nardi et al., 2002), “actor-networks” (Latour, 1996), “networks of strong and weak ties” (Granovetter, 1973), and “knots” (Engeström et al., 1999), to mention a few of the headings mentioned in literature. Examples are people flocking around the many social networking tools available such as The implication for information management is that new balances have to be found between internal and external information systems in search of enhanced support for the organization’s members.

The last implication of practice-based social theory relates to the sharpest distinction between objectivism and subjectivism: do we see and pursue only one ‘objective truth’ or do we recognize and organize for multiple realities? For information management: do we only offer ‘one size fits all’ solutions or are we (also) much more fine-grained in our support of varying social practices? Organizing for ‘one truth’ goes hand in hand with, for example, the aspiration to apply ICT for standardizing and controlling business processes. The prime motivation is management control. However, as soon as we begin talking about constructing information to make sense, learn and make decisions (Choo, 2006), such standardization and control of meaning and understanding starts chafing. Subjectivists aim to support rather than control multiple realities, appreciating that we all need to construct intersubjective truths in negotiation with the larger structures we live and work in. And that is what subjectivist information management is all about – support.

The following shifts in perspective differentiate objectivism from subjectivism:

  • From transaction to interaction;
  • from inherent properties to interactional properties;
  • from information objects to information as a difference;
  • from information exchange to communication;
  • from knowledge to knowing;
  • from learning as absorption to learning as construction;
  • from the larger entity to social practices;
  • from model-theoretic approaches to practice-based approaches;
  • from the market to all forms of organizing;
  • from one objective truth to multiple realities;
  • from control to support.

Domain, rationale, goal and definition of information management

The domain of subjectivist, practice-based information management, I propose, is sociality-centered-around-informational-objects, whether the objects are databases, documents, intranets, websites, virtual games, archives, libraries, information infrastructures or any other informational object. Its identity is built upon knowledge of the inherent properties of objects – what these objects can and cannot do in and of themselves -, and their interactional properties – the meanings people attach to these objects.

The rationale of subjectivist information management is that we need to understand what it is that people – managers, employees, designers, customers and so on – find meaningful and significant that makes them gather around such objects. Such illuminations are needed for information managers to aspire to the goal of (better) supporting processes of communication, interaction, knowing and learning through which people co-constitutively create their social practices around informational objects by providing them with facilitating technological and non-technological objects and assistance.

Finally, as management always entails exerting directed influence towards chosen goals, information management can be defined as the theory and practice of shaping informational object- centered sociality while directing people’s interactions towards organizational or societal goals.

Information management cannot manage meaning; it can only help people construct intersubjective truth, understanding and meaning in relation to organizational goals, whether they are for example, employees or customers visiting the organization’s website.

For information management to become a discipline dealing with the capacity to combine and compromise objectivism and subjectivism, the dualism between these two philosophical traditions needs to be re- conceptualized into a duality, expressing that both traditions require, enable and enrich each other.

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