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Journal Article

Pluralism in Knowledge Management: a Review  pp388-397

James Sheffield

© Jun 2009 Volume 7 Issue 3, Editor: Dan Remenyi, pp297 - 397

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The purpose of this article is to review the role of simultaneous application of multiple perspectives, or pluralism, in knowledge management, and to describe theoretical frameworks that support pluralism. Pluralism is defined as support for all three of the systems perspectives — hard, soft, and critical — that are implicit in the popular Davenport and Prusak (1998) definition of knowledge. These perspectives are associated with research paradigms (positivist, interpretivist, pluralist) and knowledge perspectives (application, normalization, creation). A case study of coordinating work in a hospital is reviewed to illustrate the role played by pluralistic approaches in knowledge management. A literature search is conducted to find frameworks that support pluralism. The findings are as follow. In the hospital case study the introduction of a patient record system (hard system) was the occasion for changes to both coordination (soft systems) and power relations (critical systems). Facts, norms and feelings are intertwined. While the electronic tool by itself is neutral in the face of power relations, its use in organisations is not. In this case at least, a holistic and pluralistic approach to knowledge management is required. In the search for frameworks to support pluralism, more than 50 frameworks from the general knowledge management literature are identified. Of the eight selected for further study, three are found to be pluralistic. These three — critical systems, scientific discourses, and Habermasian inquiry — share common characteristics. All three recognise that conflict is the precondition to knowledge creation, and that power relations, value commitments, and ethics are central to knowledge management. It is concluded that the knowledge management literature as a whole favours a single systems perspective (hard systems); a single research paradigm (positivism, focusing on objective facts); and a single knowledge management domain (knowledge application). This singular (non‑pluralistic) approach produces theories about knowledge that has already emerged. Yet the Davenport and Prusak (1998) definition of knowledge and the hospital case study include two other perspectives — soft systems and critical systems — that focus on the organizational and individual aspects of emergence, respectively. In practice, knowledge management must address the need to simultaneously solve technical problems, resolve interpersonal issues, and dissolve personal conflict. The contribution of the paper is the comparison of knowledge management frameworks on the basis of underlying system perspectives, and the identification, description, and application of some pluralistic frameworks. Each systems perspective constitutes a different discourse on the purposes served by knowledge management, and pluralisms are required to integrate them. Pluralisms constitute both a framework for inquiry in knowledge management and a design theory for collaborative technologies. The review is not exhaustive. It is beyond the scope of this paper to examine the link between the purposes served by knowledge management and the methodology required for development. The paper contributes to the literature that seeks to understand the complexity of knowledge management practice via 'awareness of the potential and the implications of the different discourses in the study of knowledge and knowledge management.'


Keywords: critical systems, foundational theory, Habermasian inquiry, knowledge management, multiple perspectives, power relations, pluralism, scientific discourses, theoretical frameworks


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