Critical Commentaries

On Objective Information-Subjective Knowledge, Making Sense: Understanding the User’s Perspective, Information Communities-Social Knowledge, and Knowing in Action – Practice Theory

Introduction

Everyday people are in constant search for information, it is an important aspect of our day to day life. From the moment we get up from bed and reach for the remote control to view the weather on television, turn on our phone map application to identify the best route to take to reach our destination most efficiently, until we turn the computer off after checking our emails before going back to bed – these are simple and concrete examples of how we value information which is almost all of the time.   Information has become a commodity. Webster dictionary defines commodity as something valuable or useful. Who would ever argue that information is not important considering that it facilitates our major tasks such as decision-making and other daily tasks no matter how minute they may be. As a commodity, some people are even willing to pay the price to acquire information, more so, others view it as a motivator in gaining power, seeing that we all live in this day and age of knowledge civilisation. Alvin Toffler, who is best known for his book in 1990 entitled “Powershift — Knowledge, Wealth and Violence at the edge of the 21st Century”, described three types of power: Force (physical power), Wealth (economic power), and Knowledge (the power of information). Toffler emphasizes that of the trinity of power, the use of wealth and force is available to the rich and powerful, however knowledge is something available to even the weak and poor. What’s interesting about Knowledge is that it can be generated infinitely as we all try to reach an understanding of “The Truth” if there is one. In Toffler’s words, “Knowledge is the most democratic source of Power”. 

Looking into these premises, as a human resource management practitioner, I am oftentimes faced with the challenge of making sure that the programs provided by the Human Resource (HR) Department remain relevant and engaging. To ensure that HR programs are valuable, various information search strategies are implored to gain adequate interventions to address HR needs, such as research on current trends on recruitment, learning and development, performance management and employee engagement, which includes rewards and recognition, experimentation on some HR systems in order to identify which actually works, compliance to certain international standards on HR  practices, and observance of best practices from other companies/offices then evaluate which ones are worth implementing. With an array of HR tasks like these, it is necessary that an HR practitioner possesses an ability on effective information search process. The discussions of weeks 4 to 7 in the course People, Information and Knowledge clearly elucidated the relevance of information theories such as Positivism and Cognitivism, the Objectivity and Subjectivity of Information, Understanding User’s Perspective, Social Knowledge, and Knowing in action – Practice Theory.  This paper attempts to find applicability, beneficiality, and implications of said topics in in the areas of my professional practice as an HR practitioner.

Is information objective or subjective? 

“… the separation of objective from subjective effects is not easy to maintain… The boundary between objective and subjective description becomes very fuzzy indeed.”(Brookes, 1980)

The argument of whether information is objective or subjective can be likened to the chicken or the egg causality dilemma. This is a metaphoric adjective describing situations where it is not clear which of two events should be considered the cause and which should be considered the effect, or to express a scenario of infinite regress (Wikipedia). As explained by Brookes there is this thin line which separates objectivity and subjectivity of information, either can claim as the ultimate truth. Thus, it is necessary to look at the objective and subjective perspectives of information to have a wholistic view. Objective information may be derived thru scientific observation or scientific method which is hugely supported by Positivism. Positivists believe that information is derived from experience not speculation, rather proceeding with abstract reasoning, it proceeds by a study of the given data through scientific observation and/or scientific method. It is a philosophical system deeply rooted in science and mathematics and based on the view that whatever exists can be verified through experiments, observation, and mathematical/logical proof. Everything else is non-existent. If something cannot be verified by science or logical proof, then it is either false or meaningless. In other words, if positivism is true, then positivism is false. Because of this flawed point, many dropped positivism. However, many still believe that though the science may be flawed, it is still a highly respectable means of understanding the truth. Oftentimes, we associate science with mental activity including thinking, remembering, learning, and using language. This leads us to look into a Cognitivist’s point of view. The cognitive approachfocuses on the understanding of information and concepts. If we can understand the connections between concepts, break down information, and rebuild with logical connections, then our retention of material and understanding will increase. More often, we view this as an objective approach in understanding information. Conversely, subjectivity points out howinformationis collected or obtained via personal interactions like talking, sharing, and explaining. The rise of the notion of subjectivity has its philosophical roots in the thinking of Descartes and Kant and its articulation throughout the modern era has depended on the understanding of what constitutes an individual. There have been various interpretations of such concepts as the self and the soul, and the identity or self-consciousness which lies at the root of the notion of subjectivity (Strazzoni, 2015). Subjectivity is contrasted to the philosophy of objectivity, which is described as a view of truth or reality that is free of any individual’s biases, interpretations, feelings, and imaginings (Solomon, 2005). Reflecting on these theories and their implication in my profession and the information search process I do in the field of research,for example, objectively, I can seekinformation by modelling the methods in natural sciences such as experimentation or large-scale surveys wherein the data can be subjected to statistical analysis and generalisation. Itviews knowledge as based on facts that are “out there in the world” waiting to be discovered. This is the positivist’s perspective on research based on measurement and numbers or known as quantitative methodology. On the other hand, subjectivists are more concerned about language and other qualitative data based on words or images. Thus, it views knowledge as constructed through people’s meaning-making. A practical application of the objective data in my field of work includes: monthly platform/service uptime, the rate at which the customers churn, the cycle time of the development team, and average lifetime value of an employee. Without qualitative data we often miss the reasons behind numbers rising or falling at a given time. In contrast, subjective data is qualitative, based on opinions, interpretations, points of view, emotions and judgments such as: sentiment analysis, customer satisfaction, team morale, and employee engagement. While subjective data gives valuable insight into a variety of values that can have a big impact in the team and the business, its integration with objective data provides necessary context and factual evidence for extracting maximum value (McGrew 2016).

Sense-Making

The sense-making theory of Brenda Dervin, based on constructivist assumptions on human information seeking and use, is discussed. Sense-making is commonly understood as the process through which people interpret and give meaning to their experiences, to simply put it. However, Brenda Dervin’s Sense-Making focuses on the individual as he or she moves through time and space. As this happens, gaps are encountered where the individual must “make sense” of the situation to move, physically or cognitively, across the gap. The key components in this process are the situation, gap, and uses. The situation is the context of the user, the gap is that which prevents movement, and the use is the application of the sense that is constructed (Dervin, 1999).Dervin’s Sense-Making Methodology (SMM) develops an explicitly participatory and dialogic methodology for interviewing which can be used in both qualitative and quantitative studies such as focus groups, surveys, in-depth interviews, and guided participant observation. While there are many key points which were highlighted during class discussion on sense-making, I would like to focus on the SMM and its applicability in my profession.Like the questions which were stated for every stage of interview highlighting, the three components (situation, gap, and uses) are relevant in the areas of learning and development, especially in the creation of new learning modules or recently conducted learning interventions for corrective and preventive action plan. Some useful questions which can be adopted are the following: to tap Situations (What stood in the way?, What were you trying to deal with?, How did that connect with past events?); to tap Gaps ( What were your bog questions?, What were you trying to figure out, learn about?, What did you struggle with?); to tap Bridges: (What conclusions/ideas did you come to? What emotions/feelings did you come to? What led to that conclusion/idea/feeling?); and to tap Outcomes sought/obtained (How did that help?, How did that hinder?, If you could wave a magic wand, what would have helped?) (Dervin and Forema-Wernet, 2012).Some fundamentals of SMM interviewing which are highly acceptable in the HR context are: minimal intrusions by researches of their credentials and expertise, understanding that informants do not come with answers on the tips of their tongues and they can talk only about situations real to them and they have experienced (Dervin, 2008). Which makes this type of interviewing non-threatening, thus the probability of eliciting genuine responses is high.

Information Communities -Social Knowledge

Information Communities share a common interest around creation and exchange of distributed information. It may be built around different focal points and topics, can emerge and function without geographical boundaries and often exploit the internet and technology (Durrance and Fisher). The impacts of which benefit both individuals and groups, increase access and use of information resources, increase dialog and communication, increase collaboration among constituents and diverse organisations, and improves public perception (Durrance and Fisher).Information communities can be a source of socially-constructed concepts, like our notions of gender which is socially constructed as to how we perceive what makes up a man and a woman as well as its other identities corresponding to the masculine or feminine gender roles. Debates as to how these conceptions are generated may be based on the subjected criteria or on objective realities. For instance, organisations are governed by laws and policies based on its mandate. These policies exist to ensure how employees are expected to behave or perform the tasks assigned to them in that organisation. Said policies have been constructed over time and these give deeper meaning to the task assigned to the employees. 

Another point of argument could be the way constructions are developed which may be favourable to the interests of those in power or whoever holds power, possesses information. But, not all information is equally important in the game of power. Hence, the equivalent of power is not information in general but qualified information. However which way power and information is viewed, it is noticeable that there is an interplay of these two concepts. For Foucault, power and knowledge are not seen as independent entities but are inextricably related – knowledge is always an exercise of power and power always a function of knowledge. He gave an example which was a Christian practice known as confession (a form of power) people were incited to “tell the truth” (produce knowledge) about their sexual desires, emotions, and dispositions. Through these confessions, the idea of a sexual identity at the core of the self came into existence (again, a form of knowledge), an identity that had to be monitored, cultivated, and often controlled (again, back to power). It is important to note that Foucault understood power/knowledge as productive as well as constraining. Power/knowledge not only limits what we can do, but also opens new ways of acting and thinking about ourselves .

Knowing in Action – Practice Theory

Practice theory is a theory of how social beings, with their diverse motives and their diverse intentions, make and transform the world which they live in. It is a dialectic between social structure and human agency working back and forth in a dynamic relationship (Dougherty, 2004). Practice theory is strongly associated with the French theorist and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.  His concept of habitusrepresents an important formulation of the principles of practice theory (Pascalian Meditations, Polity, 2000).  In layman’s term, habituscan be defined as being the collective set of practices and habits that an individual or collective group partakes in on a day to day basis.Bourdieu defines it, “spontaneity without consciousness or will”.  How can this theory be applicable in day to day life?  Social practice theory can be applied in changing individual behaviours to produce positive outcomes.  Like alcoholism or being addicted to alcohol, instead of looking at the characteristics of the individual as an alcoholic, we may focus on habitual drinking as a habit – this may include objects and abstract elements associated with drinking alcohol and how these can change over time or how other practices may be related such as socializing or partying.  There is always difficulty to quit once it has been a habit. Interventions such as conversations on the benefits of being alcohol-free or reading about reasons why alcoholism is bad for one’s health can reframe the mindset of an individual.  While in the process of quitting, thoughts about missing out when everyone can have loads of drinks may surface, it may even trigger the feeling of being envious which can also lead to self-pity. However, with spontaneous effort or constant interventions and the right mindset, one can begin to realize that it is not about not being allowed to drink excessively but rather it is the will and thought which prompts that too much drinking is not good. Instead of self-pity, one can feel self-affirmation of being free from that bad habit. Consistency in the practice of avoidance can form the habit which is based on repetition of activities and “in-between concept” (Gherardi, 2003) which means in-between habit and action are habitual features.

Despite the complexities of the highly philosophical and theoretical contents of the lecture-discussions of Weeks 4-7, it is interesting to note that much is to be learned about information seeking behaviour as well as the implications of the theories in our professional practice. The topics require rigorous analysis of context and oftentimes challenge personal views, but they are intended mainly to build a strong foundation on information and knowledge management.

References

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