Oliver, C. & Brittain, G. (2001) Situated knowledge management, Career development international, Vol. 6, No. 7


Christine Oliver and Graham Brittain


The paper explores the detail of methodologies employed in the management classroom and in change processes with organisational groups. Through this exploration, some of the dualisms which typify modernist theoretical stances will be highlighted, examined and transcended. The claim made for the practices proposed here is that they can enhance management learning through informing reflexive decision making, creative use of authority and aesthetic definitions of account-ability, thereby complementing and enriching a modernist position which, we suggest, is inadequate in isolation.

Keywords: systemic, social constructionism, knowledge, management, communication


As academics and organisational consultants committed to making practical theory (Cronen & Lang, 1994), we have become curious about the phenonemon of knowledge management (Stewart, 1997) which offers a vocabulary of control of an uncertain and chaotic future. Questions have been raised about the narrow utility of this treatment of knowledge (and management) but alternatives are not developed in ways that offer the possibility of coherent action (Jones, 1998) neither is sufficient appreciation shown of the management of knowledge as an emergent, performative communication process (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995).

This paper develops the metaphor of knowledge management as a process of communication and meta-communication, informed by the practical theory of systemic constructionism (Oliver, 1996, Oliver & Brittain, 1998 Lang and Cronen, 1994) drawing on systemic approaches, methodologies and techniques from the world of organisational consultancy (Oliver, 1996, Campbell & Draper (1991), and the academic discipline of social constructionism from within psychology (Gergen, 1992, Shotter, 1993, Cronen & Pearce, 1985).

The stance taken here is that the ways we have for talking about knowledge can be treated as language games (Wittgenstein, 1969). We will not so much be interested in epistemological perplexities such as ‘what is knowledge?’ but more in the consequences for learning of talking about knowledge in one way or another (Leppington, 1991). In particular, we will be drawing a distinction between the traditions of modernism and postmodernism (Brown, 1995) for purposes of clarity, positioning the social actor as engaged in a moral, practical and aesthetic decision making process as he or she draws on different language games and engages in the communicative action we will be calling situated knowledge management.


We can see from the quotes below how some significant thinkers have defined the word knowledge.

Emancipation from error. Henry F. Amiel

Knowledge and human power are synonymous. Francis Bacon

When you know a thing, to hold that you know it, and when you do not know it, to admit that you do not – this is true knowledge. Confucius

Learning well retained. Dante

Knowing that we cannot know. Ralph Waldo Emerson

The intellectual manipulation of carefully verified observations. Sigmund Freud

Remembrance. Thomas Hobbes

The action of the soul. Samuel Johnson

Experience. John Locke

Knowledge is not knowledge until someone else knows that one knows. Lucillus

Recognition of something absent. George Santayana

The wing wherewith we fly to heaven. William Shakespeare

The toupee which covers our baldness. Anon

(Brussell, 1970)

We could say that there are as many ways of talking about knowledge as there are thinkers and speakers. However different traditions can be identified over time.

Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) in providing an overview, point out that the Western tradition has based itself on the Cartesian dualism of subject/object, mind/body, knower/known, privileging the pursuit of scientific knowledge with its valuing of objectivity, generalisability and consistency. They contrast this approach with that of the East which attempts to transcend dualism, embracing complexity. Dualism has become a site of interest for this paper as we work through a version of situated knowledge management.

The notion of language game is helpful here to refer to the rules that develop in a discourse for interpreting meaning and guiding action (Cronen & Lang, 1994, Wittgenstein, 1969). We are choosing to call the traditions of modernism and postmodernism language games, to facilitate a contrasting paradigm summary between those ways of talking about knowledge that evoke dualism, control and certainty and those that privilege complexity (table 1).



fixed rule language gameemergent rule language game
metaphor for organisation is machinemetaphor for organisation is network of conversations
emphasis on data acquisition and retrieval - "the more you have the more you know"emphasis on narrative accounts and abilities - "the more you say/do the more you can create new knowledges"
individualistic - not requiring relationship - knowledge is in the head/mind of the individualpluralistic - emphasising the relational - knowledges are relationally and culturally mediated
objective truth and rational science prevails - science and scientific pursuit hold the key to all knowledgeobjective truth abandoned - reality is socially constructed in stories or truth claim possibilities - the ‘laws of science’ reduce to the marketing of ideas
"I think therefore I know""We live in communication"
you need to know before you can actyou learn the rules of the game by playing it
knowledge arises out of generalisability and consistencyknowledge develops out of local, situated action
management of complexity through control by fragmentationmanagement of complexity through connecting fragments
checklist and diagnostic practicesmethodologies and techniques of provisional story making, enquiry, reflection and reflexivity
(the completion of this list would amount to a finite description of the knowledge available in the known universe…) (be postmodern and add your own…)

Table 1 - Modern and Postmodern Language Games of Knowledge

The above does of course represent a dualistic account of knowledge paradigms. However, the systemic constructionist account that we will be developing here finds a way of transcending a dualistic approach while making use of it for certain purposes. Before setting this account forth and connecting it with knowledge management, we will locate conventional knowledge management discourse in the modernist tradition described above.


Knowledge management has been given significance since the 1980s as offering the path to competitive advantage, success and wealth. Knowledge has been commodified as an object to be discovered, captured, stored and traded. Friere has called this treatment of knowledge ‘the banking model’ (Friere, 1972).

"Knowledge has become the primary ingredient of what we make, do, buy and sell" (Stewart, 1997, p.12).

A Cranfield survey sample found that 73% of respondents accepted the definition of knowledge management as:

"The collection of processes that govern the creation, dissemination and utilisation of knowledge to fulfil organisational objectives" (Murray and Myers, 1997).

This definition provides a lot of scope for inclusion in the world of knowledge management as well as a lack of specificity about its practices. In this context, the word knowledge has become ubiquitous so that knowledge management programmes, knowledge based businesses, knowledge assets, the knowledge economy, the knowledge agenda, knowledge sharing networks, knowledge brokers amongst others have gained ascendance in organisational vocabulary; journals have been created such as the Journal of Knowledge Management; knowledge development has become a key performance indicator for appraisal; research and development departments have gained prominence (Jones, 1998).

The model of knowledge management represented in these enterprises has been critiqued for being relentlessly modernist in its fetishising of progress (ibid). In his review of the knowledge management phenonemon and its implications for management education, Jones adds that much of the knowledge management initiative, although modernist in its motivation and execution, rests on faith. In his request for practical grounded alternatives that acknowledge the significance of complexity, power and culture, he argues that we need a model that treats knowledge as "uncertain, risky and provisional". He invites management education to offer a practical challenge to traditional constructions of knowledge but he observes that the attempts thus far have not resonated sufficiently to provide an implicative change in the meaning given to knowledge management. No vocabulary has developed for the articulation of situated forms of knowledge management. Jones argues that a new management paradigm is required "that has not yet been fully formulated yet alone taught in business schools." (1998, p.7)

He suggests that this would take the form of the following:

practical/not academic

collective/not individual

specific and local/not generalisable

action/not textbook

intuitive/not planned

complexity/not control

This emphasis does offer a welcome corrective. The modernist approach to knowledge is, possibly, in many contexts, inadequate and even problematic in its fragmentary treatment of life. Its linear keenness to fix reality can exclude important considerations, for instance relational contexts. The risk is run in this paradigm of over-simplifying management processes. The risk is even run of participation in an unwanted pattern, or ‘strange loop’(1) whereby, in the search for answers, the very thing that is desired i.e. more knowledge, is killed off (fig.1).

What is disappointing in Jones’ alternative vision is that in privileging the practical over the theoretical he constructs an unnecessary dualism, leading to intellectual dissatisfaction and practical inflexibility. We will be proposing here that the relationship to complexity required by situated knowledge management must include both the ability to create and transcend dualism. Before we show how this might be done, we will outline the approach of Nonaka & Takeuchi (ibid) who have shown some innovation in the field of knowledge management and who can provide a useful reference point for developing our own argument.

A Strange Loop of Knowledge
Modernist assumption of knowledge as acquisition
Need to learn No need to learn
Birth of knowledgeDeath of Knowledge
"Can do""Can't do"
Curiosity satisfied Curiosity provoked
= in the context of...
Fig. 1 – A Strange Loop of Knowledge

Nonaka & Takeuchi critique Western dualism and argue that there are very few studies of the knowledge creation process in organisational life, that generally it is a theme that has been neglected in management studies, thus undermining the potential for innovation.

They propose that knowledge is created by individuals but captured and developed by organisations through knowledge networks. They position themselves as breaking new ground in their emphasis on the process of creation rather than on knowledge as an acquisition. They describe their own innovation as providing an approach that synthesises dichotomies. They talk about knowledge creation as a conversion process arising out of an interaction between tacit and explicit knowledge through the mechanisms of challenge and collaboration.

Some of their strong stories about knowledge that are expressed in their work are that:

knowledge creation occurs through the conversion of tacit to explicit knowledge
tacit knowledge is difficult to communicate
tacit knowledge is in the here and now, explicit knowledge is in the past
more emphasis is needed on the subjective and the body
we create knowledge to change the world
we can know more than we can tell
knowledge is in the individual and needs to be shared
knowledge is justified true belief

The value they give to knowledge creation does refocus the knowledge management discourse enabling a practical vision of future development through specified communication processes. Thus they soften the focus on entities that a traditional knowledge management discourse offers.

We want to propose, however, that their stories about knowledge are on balance still to be placed within the modernist tradition. Their stress on the conversion of tacit to explicit knowledge belies a (tacit) treatment of knowledge as representational – as if the map could be indistinguishable from the territory (Bateson, 1972). A connected assumption seems to be that to discover x from inside the mind of an individual is to make it possible for other individuals to act x. This possibility must, we assume, be predicated on a desire for generalisability, rather than an appreciation of the inevitability of the uniqueness of each pattern of connection which would sit more comfortably within a postmodern frame.

Their structure for knowledge creation which is more complex than can be detailed here, does provide guidelines for management processes that takes some account of the significance of relationship and culture in the development of knowledge and the significance of structuring conversation to achieve shared creativity. However, we would argue that there is a sense in which the separation of tacit and explicit represents a dualism in itself.

Practical considerations render this dualism of questionable value when imagining meaning as use (Wittgenstein, 1969). One problem is that the conversion process from tacit to explicit, whilst elaborately modeled, is insufficiently grounded in distinguishable dialogic practices which guide the manager as to how to go on in his or her management conversations.

Secondly, as we tell stories about our understanding and experience, the telling, although inevitably partial, could be said to be both more and less than the experience, and is influenced by the moral purposes in speaking to a particular audience within a particular context. When we speak, what we ‘know’ could be more appropriately said to be re-presented rather than represented. Through giving attention to the complex detail of conversation, the world is inevitably changed. The metaphor that best fits this way of thinking is that knowledge is emergent and never finished rather than one that suggests that something hidden, in its showing, can be reproduced.


Recently the authors were contracted to do some extensive management training for a large London health authority. The programme was created, discussed and praised by those requesting the work. Agreements were made about dates and the marketing of the course. We telephoned nearer the time to see what kind of response there had been to take up of the course and were told that we had not yet provided a programme.

This communication did not at first make sense to us. We ‘knew’ (our memories told us we had had a discussion about it with the comissioner of the programme) that the programme had been discussed and agreed. We asked for a meeting, furious that the work now looked in jeopardy when we had worked hard to create a good fit with the organisation’s requirements in a context of rapid change.

How were we to conduct ourselves in a meeting such as this? What kind of knowledges could inform and be formed in the process of the conversation? Might the tacit/explicit distinction have any bearing here? Our priority was to attempt to secure a piece of work out of the exchange. Our experience told us that people find it hard to move position in the context of a pattern of blame. In the meeting we picked up an atmosphere of anxiety and fragility as the agenda was being set out. The chair of the meeting said that she hoped we could work out what had happened and then think about the future. Our response was to say enthusiastically that our preference was for the emphasis to be on the future. The relieved response was palpable. We went on to discover that communication in the organisation was in chaos as governmental changes imposed new structures creating a (temporary?) unmanageable uncertainty juxtaposed with a lack of coherent leadership. Their communication with us had perhaps been a casualty of this chaos. In that context we were able to develop ideas about training and consultation in ways that felt aesthetic and made sense.

In reflecting on that communication process, we had treated knowledge as emergent, sensitive to the power of language to shape its meaning:

we rejected the prospect of debate about whose knowledge of previous communication was right – a debate that would have produced a relational effect of one side being in the right and the other in the wrong and probably a lack of agreement about which
we rejected the assignment of liar or fool to one set if identities and moral critic to the other
we created a culture of forgiveness and generosity that set a context for future negotiation
we created the possibility for movement in the conversation so that professional knowledges could be developed
we showed a mindfulness for how language shapes task, identity and relationship

This example highlights the point that we have choices about how to relate to knowledge about the past, and potential in the present to shape the knowledges of the future through the moral decision making that makes up communication (Oliver, 1992). The set of theoretical/moral commitments that contextualise such positioning can be expressed through systemic constructionism which as an orientation to practice lives more happily within the postmodern tradition but a stronger context that gives it meaning is that of situated judgement. The individual moral agent, while treated as acting within a multiplicity of contexts, is positioned to draw consciously on those discourses that make sense in the context of the complexity of the primary task. In this context, no particular language game should be ascribed a fixed value. This central point will be elaborated on below.


At Kensington Consultation Centre where we run post-graduate courses in systemic psychotherapy, consultation and management, we bring together a variety of traditions to create the ‘collage’ of systemic constructionism which structures our practices. A helpful framing of this orientation is that of approach, method and technique (Burnham, 1992) which encourages a coherence of thought and action at three levels of abstraction and a recursive relationship between them. The systemic constructionist would strive to create a fit between their approach, which would express philosophical and epistemological orientation, method which focuses on abilities in structuring conversation isomorphic to the approach, and technique which focuses on conversational moves within those structured conversations.


Language is seen not as representational but as both a partial re-presentation and a construction of reality.
Communication is the medium through which we construct knowledge, identity, relationship and culture.
The metaphor that works is to treat the organisation as a network of conversations.

Communication is always unfinished although in conversation we can create temporary boundaries around meaning which can be called knowledge.

The interest becomes how people live out their conversations in the organisation and how they tell stories and produce knowledges about their experience.
Since language is treated as fateful, the interest develops as to how the stories told shape possibilities for knowledge in the future.
The focus becomes conversation as performance – how knowledge stories can be shaped through language.
Conversation thus takes on a moral dimension because through this medium we can create or inhibit powers/knowledges for each other to act.
The social actor is required to make conscious, situated (knowledge-able) judgements that reflect the complexity of contexts that are being acted out of and into.
Thus we can all be treated as managers of conversation, developing knowledges through the attention we pay to what is created through language.

This way of thinking facilitates a treatment of knowledge as:

performative, changing as you create it
requiring moral relational contexts and constructing moral relational consequences
requiring a reflexive consciousness about the power of language and the power of self and other in the co-construction of knowledge.


We want to propose here that when conversational structures are provided that fit and offer an opportunity for exploring the content or theme that is the contested site, preoccupation or concern in a management context, an enhanced opportunity for account-ability is developed, that is, the ability to provide knowledge accounts that make contextual sense. We will be creating an account ourselves about how that can happen, exploring an example in use (Wittgenstein, 1969). Such structures are used to facilitate speaking and listening in a context of sufficient clarity of entitlements and obligations about what to speak about, how to speak about it, for what purposes. Two conversational structures frequently used in a systemic constructionist context are that of enquiry and reflection (Andersen, 1991, Oliver, 1992, Oliver, 1996, Cronen & Lang, 1994). Given the position taken about the power of language, time and effort is taken to craft questions, tools and themes for exploration.

The task in the context of enquiry is to develop the (shared) use of language so that desired patterns are initiated and unwanted patterns or perspectives are repositioned and reframed. This is enabled through questioning methodologies that facilitate more complex narratives or create temporary clarities through the development of reflexive abilities. Reflection processes are conversations about conversations enabling a rich layering of connections to be made, thus facilitating new meaning.


Moves in the conversation that create openings for new thinking, reframe language that fixes people in stuck positions, create a pattern out of a confused experience are all enactments of technique coherent with the approach of systemic constructionism.


John Shotter has highlighted the significance of situated practical-moral knowledge, inviting us to focus on ‘knowing of the third kind’ – a kind of knowing from within an episode of interaction, rather than a knowing what or how (1993, p.19). Our own desire is to link knowledge of the first, second, third and fourth kinds…….to explore the relationship between knowledges and to construct a social actor who can, with other social actors, move between different forms of knowledge with fluidity and grace, mindful of the consequences of juxtaposing knowledge with other words.

With this desire in mind we will be using knowledge as an ability to think, talk and act – in relation to what happened, is happening and could/should happen. This requires (a temporary):

knowing what to do (within the relational episode)
knowing why to do it (with reference to ethical and theoretical framework and perception of organisational purpose) and
knowing how to do it (a skill in making the right next move in an elegant, eloquent and ethical manner.)

Such skill would be shown in a speech act(2) of knowing within an episode of communication, within the relational complexities of organisational life and in a conscious(3) re-presentation or narrative of communicative action which includes an account of moral relational contexts.


At the level of approach, the model of ‘domains of experience’ has offered systemic constructionist thinkers a way to give meaning to particular kinds of contexts, creating clarity for action (Maturana & Varela, 1987, Lang, Little and Cronen, 1990). The three domains of aesthetics, production and explanation are in contextual relationship with each other as dimensions of lived experience (Fig 2). It is in the domain of aesthetics that judgements are made about which of the other two domains to foreground. For certain purposes, one domain is identified as the strongest context for giving meaning to communication, inviting ourselves to act temporarily as if the world is like that. This invitation to ‘act as if’ is crucial as it creates flexibility for action, encourages reflexivity, helps us become less attached to fixed ideas and enables a meta-communication about context, meaning and action which can be liberating.

This can be a helpful tool where there is confusion within a management process about what kind of definition of relationship, with its associated entitlements and obligations, people are temporarily inhabiting. For instance, is a manager making a demand or offering guidance when asking someone to do something in a particular way? Using the domains approach and making this part of the vocabulary can help develop shared understandings that facilitate effective action.

Domain of production WHAT

This domain aligns with a modernist sensibility; we live in an objective world; it is a world of facts, of right and wrong, where truth is possible; it is a world of order and certainty, deductive logic, discipline, contract, legalities; legitimate activities include instruction, the stating of opinion, rhetorical argument, the fixing of problems, convergence.

Domain of explanation WHY

This domain aligns with a postmodern sensibility; we live in a world of narrative; multiple descriptions of the world are desirable; all positions are partial; it is a world of complexity, moral logic, curiosity, facilitation, consultation; legitimate activities are systemic story making, enquiry, questioning, reflection, the making of connections, divergence.

Domain of aesthetics HOW

This is a world where situated judgements are made about which of the other two domains to privilege; where the modern/postmodern dualism can be transcended and seen in contextual relationship; where the preoccupations are to do with fit, coherence, pattern, form, beauty, elegance and eloquence; moral responsibility is considered; situated sensibility is an aspiration; theoretical frameworks contextualise action.

Domains of Experience
Fig 2 – Domains of Experience and Paradigm Connections

At the level of approach we have found it coherent with a systemic constructionist sensibility with its emphasis on the social actor making reflexive, moral judgements, to juxtapose the domains model with a modern/postmodern paradigm comparison, (imperfectly) locating the domain of production in the modern frame and the domain of explanation in the postmodern. The domain of aesthetics provides the space to construct situated knowledges about which domain to inhabit and how to do that with grace and coherence. Thus we potentially extract ourselves from the dualistic trap that knowledge management can create.

We would now like to show how this model can be used at the levels of method and technique to structure and manage conversation about knowledge.


As organisational consultants we were recently invited by a head of personnel to facilitate an enquiry into the needs of his organisation for management training. The enquiry was to explore and develop the knowledge of the 60 managers that were invited with a view to generating a knowledge creation process to facilitate decision making about training.

We understood that he needed help in accessing the diverse (and often conflicting) management voices. Although the organisation had been talking of becoming less rigidly hierarchical, in the past, decisions about training had been made almost single handedly by him so this move to consult could have been felt to be culturally jarring.

In setting contexts at the beginning we commented that we would say a few words about our approach to the session. At this early point, a man created a challenge by saying:

he was not interested to hear about our approach
that he had many things to do on his desk
that he was concerned we would be wasting valuable time
he wasn’t sure why we were having the meeting anyway
there was no point being here because what happened would make no difference to decision making.

One of us thanked him for expressing his concern, asking if he was questioning whether he had a stake or ability to influence decision making about management training. She said she had decided to interview the head of personnel publicly in front of the group as an audience, to set a context for the session and would be asking him to relate to the questions that had come up.

Before doing that she told everyone that if they felt on balance it would be a waste of time to participate in this exploration, then it would be best if they left the room but she would value their staying because their voices would be useful to the head of personnel. After the interview she invited people to discuss in pairs what would need to happen here for them to say it was a valuing of time and facilitated the sharing of feedback into the larger group.

How was knowledge being managed here? In the context of a moral-relational performative frame, in the domain of aesthetics, we were concerned that no-one (including ourselves) was to be placed in a stuck position, particularly one where their intentions were being negatively connoted. In that context, this first voice, a strong voice expressing strong opinions which undermined hope of change, needed reframing so that his contribution was not seen as complaint with the power of disablement, but as an act of concern and vulnerability, drawing attention to the fragile in the organisation.

In inviting people to leave or commit to the process, we were attempting, in the domain of production, to create clarity of definition of relationship, addressing the need for a ‘contract’ of responsibility and entitlement to participate that did not as yet exist, constructing a story of potential for influence. This was a high risk move as everyone except us and the head of personnel could have left the room but too much ambiguity had been created too early on for the value of the meeting to be shared and defined without quite radical action.

The move to interview the head of personnel enabled him to speak coherently about the dilemma of how to enact cultural change, and about his need to consult with managers’ knowledge and experience which arose out of his desire to make decisions differently. The interview process allowed for uninterrupted enquiry to occur in the domain of explanation, developing knowledge about his motivation and decision making.

The discussion in pairs produced a lot of material which was charted and then there was a break when we had time to make some private observations. We observed that the feedback was full of dualisms and disconnection:

management as a control process/ management as coaching and facilitation

what is the point in talking/ we are stuck and need help

we cannot influence/we complain loudly

This observation led us to construct a strange loop pattern which helped us in our thinking about what to do next (fig 3).

What this loop form is attempting to show is that a lack of co-ordination of the meaning (and action) of management set a context for dualistic versions of management sitting side by side, which created confusion and and lack of ability to act with coherence. For instance, people were saying things like ‘the people that want management training won’t be the ones that need it and we can’t make the ones that need it do it.’

The higher contexts shown then give sense to the ‘madness’ of the strange loop pattern which goes like this:

In the context of an enquiry into management training needs, the complaint is made that peoples’ voices are not taken seriously which invokes a hierarchical cultural story. In that context, management training is dictated but people experience some attention to their complaints about voices not being heard and lip service is paid to a new fraternal cultural story, which sets a context for an enquiry into training needs and so on.

No co-ordinated meaning of management
Facilitation/control dualism

Consultation into management training needs

Enquire into management training priorities
Dictate management priorities
Compalint: voices not taken seriously
Concerns satisfied: voices taken seriously
Invokes control/hierarchical cultural story
Invokes facilitation/fraternal cultural story
Fig. 3 - A Dualistic Loop A Dualistic Loop

This seemed to us an organisation in search of a moral relational frame. Our observation was that there was a huge struggle for structure and coherence and a need for leadership in managing and co-ordinating meaning. Our own position was mirroring that. We struggled to think how we should make a situated judgement in managing the knowledge that had been presented to us thus far so that it could be developed rather than us all participating in a shared pattern.

Our decision was to use the domains heuristic as a practical method for structuring conversation. The dualistic feedback had reminded us that where a group or individual is faced with a dilemma or apparently contradictory or competing priorities for attention and action the domains model can be helpful in managing that complexity. In a context where only two positions are allowed and when they are inhabited they become fixed, such positions can be experienced as permanent and totalising. So we decided that there would be a beauty in inviting everyone to experience a speaking position from within each domain. Thus everyone was allowed an experience of each (knowledge) position, all positions were given validity and movement was facilitated between positions.

It was significant how the context was set for this. We shared with them how useful we had found their feedback from the pairs exercise in the way that it conveyed the high degree of complexity of their knowledge of organisational culture, relationship and task. We offered the domains structure as a way of managing that complexity.

We set a context by offering the theoretical frame of domains and pointing to the possibility to inhabit or privilege one domain at a time. We developed the notion with the group of temporary positioning, enabling speaking with specific shared purpose. We asked them to ‘act as if’ what they said really mattered and could have the power of influence. Their task was to discuss management training from within all three domains but in consecutive conversations. We associated the domain of explanation with the word WHY (are we doing this?), the domain of production with the word WHAT (are we going to do?), and the domain of aesthetics with the word HOW (are we going to do it?). They were coached, both beforehand and during the conversations so that they could keep within the boundaries of the different domains.

In the domain of explanation they were encouraged to speculate about the purpose of developing management training, linking different contributions, imagining potential futures, showing curiosity about each others’ ideas, enquiring into peoples’ assumptions. In the domain of production they were encouraged to state strong opinions, even to argue, to discuss ‘the truth’ about what should be done, to think in terms of right and wrong. In the domain of aesthetics they were encouraged to think about how any of these ideas could be coherent with the organisation’s mission and purpose, how actions could be taken with grace and morality.

The effects of creating this structure were quite profound. The energy and flow of the conversation conveyed interest, commitment and connection. People talked about how a buzz had been created. The comments that were made connected with other comments so that there was an experience of coherence. Interestingly, the domain where the group needed most coaching was the domain of production – they needed encouragement to state opinions strongly and make bold proposals when it became legitimate to do so.

A public interview near the end of the session with the head of personnel asked him what had most inspired him. He said what was so hopeful was that he felt he had a mandate to act because no-one left the room when they had been invited to decide, and those in the room had worked very hard to build on their knowledges and develop ideas. He now felt he could go away and make decisions about the management training programme. In essence, this statement encapsulated the transition to optimism and agency which had been created in the group. Moreover it underlines the significance of privileging the emergent nature of knowledge – new knowledges had been produced in the domains conversations which were reinforced and re-presented in a new story of management action.


We want to suggest that in making use of the domains notion to structure communication we enabled people to relate purposefully to their experience and produce knowledge that could be put to corporate use. This was made possible through a series of situated judgements that took account of the performative, moral-relational nature of knowledge production, appreciating that such judgements will shape the future.

The atmosphere of disconnection, rigidity and confusion in the management group that we were working with presented a picture of management task, relationship and culture that posed a challenge for creative discussion. We would argue that this picture is not unusual, although challenges to creativity can take many organisational forms. Knowledge management in this context becomes a task that requires attention to the interconnection of relevant contexts for purposeful discussion to take place, yet conventional management discourses would be unlikely to take such a position.

The adoption of such an approach is not immediately accessible. The skills required to make situated judgements about the management of knowledge conversations are contingent on reflexive abilities within communication. These abilities need cultivating and are an important area for development in the context of management learning where systemic constructionist practical theory can present itself as a site for the academic and practical to be in dialogue. The domains model, for instance, has been used:

to construct reflecting processes so that management course participants can develop understanding and create movement in the context of confusion, dilemma, paradox or stuckness in knowledge development

practise a methodology that can be taken into management and consultation contexts
develop their ability to link theory and practice through making conscious narrative connection
as a research tool for discourse enquiry into theoretical assumptions and practices (Oliver & Brittain, 2000)

Thus development of learning can occur at three levels (Bateson, 1972), enabled when opportunity is provided to meta-communicate about the knowledge developed.

"At the third order level …..students develop conversations about the contexts for the contexts for learning. In reflecting on new learning, we are able to explore the meta-theoretical assumptions of different educational language games and the discourses accessed by particular language use. The power of this reflexive ability is in valuing the connections beween levels of context and in positioning oneself with curiosity to enquire into such complexity" (Oliver & Brittain, 1998).

Although such skill development is very particular, the hope in presenting this approach is that the management of relational and cultural knowledge conversations while developing knowledge subjects will be seen as more crucial, and some clues about how that can be managed in a situated way may be found here.


We hope this discussion has drawn attention to the complexity of the management of knowledge creation. We have shown how conventional approaches to knowledge management tend to inhabit a dualistic position in their focus on control, certainty and acquisition, but also how attempts to transcend dualism can falter in the pursuit of the opposite.

The account we have developed here of the relationship between dualism and knowledge management has shown how the limitations of language make it impossible and not even desirable to eradicate dualistic thinking and talk. We have proposed the importance of both enabling the articulation and transcendance of dualism. What matters is the relationship that we have to such forms of talk; the ability to treat them as language games; to move between them in situated contexts; to make conscious use of them for purposes of management learning and development.

The domains model offered as an example of coherence between systemic constructionist approach, method and technique, provides opportunity for positioning the social actor consciously in language. It facilitates clarity of meaning and action constructing the possibility of reconciliation or co-existence of opposing values or realities. It draws attention to how context gives meaning and purpose, allowing a temporary inhabiting of a context to enable a specified speaking and listening from that position. This enhanced reflexivity can impact constructively on organisational abilities to manage knowledge content and process simultaneously and recursively.

The sensibility which is expressed by the domains model invites us to give attention to how conversational form can enhance situated abilities to manage knowledge. Thus organisational relationships and cultures can be both harnessed and developed wherein communication processes are treated as integral to, rather than separate from, tasks. In these ways, the diverse and multiple voices which comprise and construct organisational realities are more likely to be heard and managed as valid and contingent contributions to the project of knowledge development.


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1Strange Loops: The construction of the strange loop is useful as a means of hypothesising or story telling in circumstances where a number of apparently contradictory meanings co-exist in relation to one another and where a sense of stuckness and disorientation may prevail. The loop operates like a figure of eight: as soon as one story is told the next one follows consequentially.

The sequence is destined to perpetuate unless there is a change of story at the higher levels of context which are in reflexive and reinforcing relationship with the pattern described by the loop. (Cronen et al, 1982).

The strange loop incorporates a greater complexity of contextual levels than that offered by the double bind pattern described by Bateson (1972).
2Speech Act: is defined as the temporary meaning which emerges from an utterance and response within an episode of communication (Cronen & Pearce, 1985).
3We are deliberately using the word conscious here because it draws attention to our moral relationship with what did, is and could happen. The etymology of the word conscious derives from the Latin conscire constructed from com meaning with/together, and scire meaning to know (from which we get the word science). Hence conscious means to know something with oneself, implying a moral reflexivity regarding the difference between right and wrong (leading to the derived noun - conscience)