Special Editors' Note:
Complexity and Knowledge Management

Yasmin Merali
Warwick Business School, ENG

David Snowden
Institute for Knowledge Management, ENG

The content of this special issue of Emergence has its origins, but not its entirety, in a meeting at Bedfont Lakes, UK, entitled “Complexity and Knowledge Management.” The meeting was attended by a number of academics and practitioners from a range of disciplines and backgrounds. Many are contributors to this issue and many of the topics are closely related to the discussions at the meeting. The title for the special issue was chosen to represent a movement away from Tayloristic models of knowledge management to metaphors that are closer to the organic in their complexity.

Scholars and practitioners in management have always drawn on a seemingly eclectic array of disciplines in order to gain insights into the behavior and management of organizations. The emergence of complexity “theory” and the labeling of organizations as complex adaptive systems have created common ground for individuals from different disciplines to engage in discourse and debate about the characteristics and capabilities of organizations over time and space. This is a relatively new movement and much of the work in the domain is exploratory. For academics, the multi-paradigmatic nature of this work is both exhilarating and dangerous. There is the potential to gain new insights by looking at organizations through different lenses, but there is also a danger of borrowing inappropriately from “foreign” disciplines. The latter may be a result of inadequate understanding of the fundamental concepts of unfamiliar disciplines, of facile and shallow use of borrowed metaphor, or of succumbing to the temptation of sliding from metaphorical reference to attribution of analogous properties based on an anthropocentric Weltanschauung.

Knowledge management as a subject for management attention rose in popularity over the late 1990s. In the early years, its “productization” by management consultants became inextricably linked with computer-based knowledge management environments. The organizational imperative was to extract so-called tacit knowledge from individuals and to convert it into explicit knowledge that could be codified and stored in computerized knowledge repositories for perpetual access. In the later part of the decade there were expositions on the futility of such an endeavor, asserting that knowledge and the social systems in which it resided were too complex to be dealt with simplistically. The mainstream discourse on knowledge management had reached an impasse with this polarization of views.

However, away from the popular knowledge management journals, a number of researchers and practitioners were interested in looking at organizations as complex adaptive systems. Distancing themselves from the schism between IT- and OD-dominated perspectives, they placed a high value on the utilization of multiple perspectives for making sense of emergent organizational properties in dynamic settings. The issues of information, intelligence, meaning, values, action, and human interaction raised in the knowledge management arena were integral to this work. The meeting at Bedfont Lakes was designed to introduce this type of thinking into the wider discourse on knowledge management.

Fourteen of us spent two days talking over what excited us about research and practice in this arena. Among us we had perspectives from the social and natural sciences, including biology, physics, linguistics, economics, philosophy, anthropology, computer science, strategy, and management. Many of us had multidisciplinary backgrounds, and all of us were interested in emergent properties of social systems. The purpose of the meeting was to provide a space and a platform for uninhibited discourse, to generate discussions around the issues that were important to address in future research. Far from seeking a consensus to define “valid” complexity research in knowledge management, diversity of perspectives was celebrated. The aim was to catalyze the emergence of a self-perpetuating movement.

The diversity of papers in this issue reflects the ethos of the Bedfont Lakes meeting. Some of the papers contain contentious views, and the purpose of the issue is to encourage debate.