This article appeared in Volume 10 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.
The Knowing Organization: How Organizations Use Information to Construct Meaning, Create Knowledge, and Make Decisions. By Chun Wei Choo. Oxford University Press, 1998.
The book consists of three parts. The first part (chapters 1 and 2), is about information use and stages of the knowledge process. The second part (chapters 3, 4 and 5) deals with sense making, learning, knowledge creation and knowledge conversion, and decision making. The final part (chapters 6 and 7), discusses the knowing organization in terms of theory and processes. We will first give a brief description of the contents of the book, in which we will highlight the three basic concepts of organizational sense making, knowledge creation and decision making. We will then give a short indication of what we consider to be the strong and weak points of the book. Finally we will take a more explicitly semiotic stance and discuss Choo's (implicit) semiotics.
Discussion of the research on information seeking and information use is for Choo a first step towards a kind of intermittent conclusion. "Our starting point is that the information user is a sentient, cognitive person: that information seeking and use are dynamic processes extending over time and space; and that the context of information use determines in what way and to what extent the received information is useful" (p. 40). Subsequently Choo discusses in greater detail the cognitive, affective and situational dimensions of information use. He refers to the work done by Dervin (1992) on cognitive gaps in information seeking and information use, by Kuhltau (1991) on the stages in the information search processes, and by Taylor (1991) who combines sets of people, typical problems, work settings and problem resolutions into a framework allowing the categorization of information use environments. Choo concludes that information use is constructed, situational and dynamic. Thesecharacteristics make it difficult to develop an overall theory on information needs, information seeking and information use. Whereas his starting point is at the level of the individual, the discussion of sense making, of knowledge creation and decision making brings him to the level of the organization.
Information needs, information seeking, and information use are recurrent in all three stages of the knowing process. The central problem in sense making, according to Choo (p. 70) "is how to reduce or resolve ambiguity, and how to develop shared meanings so that the organization may act collectively." Sense making (the term was used by Weick 1995) is an overall "meaning giving" activity which is grounded in identity construction, retrospective, enactive, social, ongoing, focused in relation to extracted cues and driven by plausibility, not by accuracy. Choo follows Weick's line of thought, and develops a sense making recipe by which organizations make sense of their environment, their identities, and their actions. This recipe consists of the processes of enactment, selection and retention, which are located on the aggregation level of the organization, not of the individual. "Sense making in organizations creates a structure of shared meanings and understandings based on which concerted action can take place. A network of shared meanings and interpretations provides the social order, the temporal continuity, and contextual clarity for members to coordinate and relate their actions" (p.79). To conclude the chapter on sense making, Choo offers a scheme in which on the vertical axis sense making, cognitive needs, affective responses and situational dimensions are located and on the horizontal axis information needs, information seekingand information use. The two axes produce 12 cells in which several characteristics of the organizational process are listed.
The second important concept in Choo's book is knowledge creation. The phrase was coined by Nonaka & Takeuchi (1995). Choo refers to the discussions within management and organization science about innovation and learning. As he sees it, "the dilemma before an organization is therefore to externalize knowledge so that it can be shared, but to do so without compromising the impetus to learn and innovate" (p. 109). On the one hand innovation creates uncertainty and chaos, on the other hand an organization has to change, adapt and learn if it wants to survive. This paradoxical situation can be explained in terms of the various kinds of knowledge that are -- or better should be -- simultaneously present in organizations. These forms include tacit, declarative, procedural, public and common sense knowledge, to name but a few. Important for an organization that wants to innovate is the distribution of the forms of knowledge over the individuals in the organization. This is important because innovation and learning are necessarily related to change and transformation. And the things that change are the forms (and the contents) of knowledge in the process of knowledge conversion. Choo summarizes and compares the various attempts to describe the stages and phases of knowledge creation that have been put forward by authors such as Nonaka & Takeuchi (1995), Wikström and Normann (1994), and Leonard-Barton (1995). Choo suggests that we replace Porter's "value chain" by so-called "knowledge-based value stars". The value star combines the aspects of transformation, internal linking and external linking. This linking is related to thecommunication structures and the information/knowledge exchange procedures of an organization. As he did in the chapter on sense making, Choo discusses the information needs, the information seeking process and the use of information involved in knowledge creation.
The third stage in the knowing process is decision making. Choo uses the notorious space shuttle Challenger disaster as an example to discuss several aspects of decision making. He refers to Simon's remarks about the bounded rationality of humans and their cognitive simplifications in relation to themselves, and subsequently elaborates on four models of organizational decision making. These models are the rational model, the political model, the process model and the anarchy model. Each of these models can be scaled on two dimensions: technical uncertainty and goal ambiguity/conflict. Choo describes these models in great detail and relates them to the processing of information (needs, seeking and use). He concludes that: "organizations cope by designing and implementing rules and routines to simplify and guide choice behavior so that it is consistent and coordinated, at least at some minimal level" (p. 204). This situation leads to three paradoxes that boil down to a tension between uniformity and variety. Or in different terms: habit conservatism versus new experiences or optimization versus acceptability.
Sense making, knowledge creation and decision making can all be seen in relation to the time axis. Sense making implies looking back in time, knowledge creation is looking around in the present and decision making relates to the future. In the final part of his book,Choo emphasizes that organizational knowing is a social process. It is important, therefore, to speak about knowing and not about knowledge. Choo is reluctant to objectify knowledge. Knowledge is not a thing. 'An activity view of knowing sees knowing as being tied to doing, and doing as leading to the making of sense in the context of the organization and its environment. It asks a different question, "How are systems of knowing and doing changing, and how should the organization respond?"' (p. 226). The characteristics of organizational knowing are the following: it is mediated, it is situated, it is provisional, it is pragmatic and it is contested.
The amount of literature Choo uses is abundant and he demonstrates a strong sense for integration and interconnectedness. As a motto to his book, he could have chosen a statement like "in practice everything is connected with everything else". The book offers a challenging starting point for further scientific research. Treating these topics the way Choo does has its merit, but there is another side to the coin, which is the lack of an explanatory and predictive theory. This brings us to a point of critique.
Theories of action and organic thinking match quite well: organisms act in order to survive in a changing environment. The perspective of Choo's study is distinctively organic. A look at the contents table should suffice to notice how in this book the small mirrors the large, and each part mirrors the whole. The triad of sense making, knowledge creation and decision making is repeated often, on many levels, throughout the book. Nevertheless, no explanatory theory or hypothesis about organizational behavior is presented. Nor does the study confront us with conflicting views. The different theories discussed are not treated as autonomous wholes, which deserve discussion and, eventually, criticism. The reader interested in one of them has to turn to the literature to find out about background and arguments. Choo does not engage in a critical dialogue with the authors discussed, nor are they presented within their own context of argument. But neither does he suggest that all theories are ultimately saying more or less the same thing, although in different words. The various authors and points of view are used to fill in a clear overall structure of three stages for which, however, noargument is given. The 'general model' presented on page 61 is a tutti-frutti of the various approaches summarized. As a whole, therefore, Choo's model lacks explanatory force. It gives a description of the knowing organization, but offers little theory. The result is a highly arbitrary model, which has to rely on a certain intuitive plausibility to convince. However, this intuition is presented coherently. This is how many of us look at organizations. But then again, the table and figures, on pages 232 to 241 for instance, suggest a knowledge claim that is not at all warranted by the argument in the text. Why should we follow Choo instead of one of the many other authors of descriptive 'theories'?
Thus, while Choo offers a wealth of material, presented in a clear way, his state-of-the-art report on the knowing organization makes the need for theory all the more acute.
Three questions may be asked concerning the semiotic impact of the Choo's book. Does the author use semiotic theory and if so, which one? Which topics are discussed in the book that are of a semioticnature and what is the relevance of the discussion for semiotic theory? What are the -- implicit or explicit -- semiotic assumptions Choo works with, and how do they relate to semiotic theory?
Regarding the first question, the answer can be brief. Choo does not refer to semiotic theorizing. In the reference section of the book, one will search without success for the names of semioticians. There are no references to Peirce, Saussure, Morris Goodman or Eco, to name but a few of them. Nor will one find, in the index, semiotic concepts such as signal, sign, symbol, semiotics, abduction, syntactics, semantics, or pragmatics. The book does not, therefore, present itself explicitly and unambiguously as a book on a semiotic subject. But does this mean that it is of no interest at all for semiotically interested readers? That would be too hasty a conclusion indeed. Most of the topics discussed in this book are definitely of a semiotic nature. Take, for instance, the title: The knowing organization. How organizations use information to construct meaning, create knowledge, and make decisions. Doesn't that point in the direction of semiotic issues? Meaning construction and knowledge creation are semiotic issues par excellence. Not to mention Choo's predilection for triads, a clear signal to many semioticians! The question then being, of course, if, and how, Choo's triads relate to the triadic semiotics of C.S. Peirce.
This brings us to our second question. At least three broad topics discussed in this book are of interest to semiotics. The first is the process of sense making, the second is the process of knowledge creation and learning, and the third is the specific role of the organization in semiotic processes. A 'case for semiotics' is thedescription of the organizational process of sense making (pp.72-79). In the 'sense making recipe', we read how raw data from the environment are interpreted and, after that, enacted. From a semiotic perspective, this 'processing of raw data' is of course highly problematic. In so far as all perception is considered to be theory-driven, raw data will be hard to find. What are considered to be 'raw data', therefore, must be something else. Probably, and Choo refers to this in his discussion of 'information seeking', the raw data come as meaning problems, 'gaps' or 'discontinuities' (p. 42).
Furthermore, the distinction Choo makes between sense making on the one hand and knowledge creation and decision making on the other can be understood, from a semiotic point of view, in terms of the creation of meaning versus the actualization and use of meaning. In sense making, according to Choo, organizations create or reconfigure parts of their environment. In knowledge creation and decision making, knowledge is actualized through formalization and externalization, and available knowledge is used to make decisions about the course of action to be taken. In the latter cases, individuals work with meanings that are given but not (yet) fully used. No new meanings arise. The term 'knowledge creation', in this context, is a little misleading because in fact, knowledge is not created, but rather made available. Which may bring us into tricky philosophical debates. However, the 'knowledge creation' reproach can be addressed to many authors in this field, starting with Nonaka & Takeuchi (1995). In the case of sense making, meaning has to be created, and new meaning will arise.
Another semiotic problem discussed in the book, but withoutreference to the semiotic literature, is the distinction between single loop and double loop learning (pp. 220-224). Whereas double loop learning could also be characterized as semiotic, in the sense that it entails a change of the sign systems involved, single loop learning only relates to changes within, or with, a given representational system (such as, in this particular case, a corporate theory of action). The distinction reminds us of that between rule-governed and rule-changing behavior (but cf. Van Heusden and Jorna 1996).
As a semiotic entity, organizations structure the actions of the sign users. The organization exists as a semiotic tool, in so far as it structures the environment and the actions of those who use it, that is, of those involved in one way or another, in the organization. As a semiotic entity, it may need some restructuring now and then, to adapt it to changing circumstances. Reformulated in semiotic terms the question which Choo's book raises is: as innovation and (knowledge) creation are semiotic processes, how do they relate to the organization as a semiotic entity?
As an organization consists of the set of representations that structure the actions of those involved, the knowledge about the structure and the process of the (knowing) organization is knowledge of what is, in itself, a semiotic reality. As such it is meta-, or second order, or semiotic knowledge. A semiotics of organizations, of which we see the rough contours emerging from Choo's book, deals with the organization, conceived as the representation of interpersonal relations and actions. It will tell us about the functions of these representations, how they are structured and what their particularities are. It may also be able to predict howand when these representations will be innovative, thus leading to an adaptation of the organization to a changing environment, either through changes within the organization or through changes of the organization as a whole (single- and double loop learning, respectively).
It should be clear, therefore, that the semiotics implicitly contained in Choo's study is not only about representations within organizations (in research and development, for instance), but is also about organizations as representations. This takes us to a major point about which Choo is not fully explicit, namely the relation between individual and organization. Whereas on the one hand he stresses that sense making, knowledge creation and decision making take place in individuals, on the other hand he emphasizes the role of the organization as a sense-making, knowledge creating and decision making entity. Organizations thus become highly anthropomorphic, when they are said to do all sorts of things, such as using information, learning, making choices, scanning the environment, etc.
Take for instance the paragraph on 'shared minds: consensus and culture' where Choo writes: "Research has found that organizations and managers employ a number of meaning-making and meaning-sharing mechanisms to simultaneously build consensus and accommodate diversity" (p. 80). This is rather puzzling. Who or what is an organization, apart from the managers (and other individuals) who are part of it? Can one switch so easily between these two levels of aggregation? Can one treat an organization as being an individual, or an organism? Of course one can, metaphoricallyspeaking. But then again, the metaphor says something about how one conceives the relations among the individuals, making up the organization. That is, it says something about how people are thought to interact. This metaphorical way of speaking about organizations (Gazendam, 1993) tells us something about what an organization is, in relation to the individuals for whom the organization is a reality. An organization, from our point of view, is basically a representation that structures the interaction among a group of people. In relation to the individuals involved it is not, therefore, a different level of aggregation (group versus individual), but it should be located at a different ontological level. Organizations are part of the semiotic (cognitive, affective, volitional) structures individuals use to give form to their environment. As such, they structure this environment as well as the actions in it.
Therefore, a theory of organizations, and, as Choo says: of knowing organizations, is a theory of semiotic processes, of the semiotic structuring of actions and interactions among individuals and groups of individuals. As such, Choo's book presents us with semiotic theories, dealing with a very specific form of representation namely, organizational representation. Organizations don't act, but individuals act with organizations. An organization, be it a family, a school, a company or a state, is a semiotic structure used by a group of individuals to structure their environment and their actions in that environment. As a representation, an organization is not an objectively given entity, but has to be interpreted again and again by the individuals working in and with it, and this interpretation, as we know from a long hermeneutic tradition, often creates grave problems and conflicts. Also, as a representation, an organization may be shared, discussed, negotiated and even enforced. And the same representation may be used by different individuals for different goals. Thus a 'theory of action' of an organization, which includes norms for corporate performance, strategies for performance and assumptions which bind strategies and norms together (pp. 220-221), may be understood as a normative semiotics, telling those involved how to represent their interaction (and behave accordingly).
Seen from this perspective, Choo's remarks on what organizations are, and those on models of organization, become particularly relevant for semiotics. What we find here, more or less in disguise, are theories of organizational semiosis, that is, of the organization as structure and process of representation. Thus the models of organizational decision making discussed in the chapter on organizations as decision making systems (pp. 170-187) can be read as types of representational strategy. In a similar vein, the strategies adopted by organizations to achieve and manage consensus (discussed on page 80ff.) must be understood as strategies used by individuals to achieve and maintain common representations, that is, basically, as semiotic strategies. The scheme given on page 86 is particularly interesting, because the three perspectives of organizational culture given can be related directly to basic semiotic patterns. The integration-perspective may be characterized as 'metonymical', the differentiation-perspective as 'synecdochical', and the fragmentation-perspective as 'ironical'. One wouldimmediately presuppose that there must be at least a fourth organizational perspective. In this case, the basic semiotic relation would be that of analogy or 'metaphor'. The consensus now is clan-wide and based on similarity, the consistency is that of a (corporate) image or totem, clarity (that is the orientation toward ambiguity) is ubiquitous, and the dominant metaphors are that of the group of animals (the organization as a pack of wolves, for instance), a clan or a tribe.
As semiotic structures, representations are created, developed, changed and used. They can be communicated. They can also be rigidly imposed, they can be open, or even chaotic. In short: organizations share their characteristics with all representations and representation processes. What we can expect, from an organizational semiotics, is a deeper insight in the specific aspects related to organizational representations. In the meantime, it appears highly fruitful to read theories of organization as semiotic theories dealing with a very specific form of representational behavior. From Choo's analysis of the literature, we may hypothesize that one can speak about organizational representation when at least two conditions are fulfilled, namely: cognitive consensus and communicative behavior (p. 80). In all three stages of sense making, knowledge creation and decision making, therefore, the organization itself is the meaning structure that encourages these processes or diverts from them, and structures them in certain ways (but see Nonaka and Takeuchi 1995 for a typology of organizational behavior).
Although he is not explicit on his own stance, Choo's way ofpresenting the material in a general framework is characteristic of a highly 'metonymic' approach. Recurring characteristics of such an approach are repetition through translation, the absence of logical argument (ab-, in- and deductive inference), and the recurrence of the same basic structure on various levels of aggregation. The definition Choo gives of the organization is particularly revealing: "Since all organizational behavior springs from decisions and since behavior is the unfolding of a series of decisions, the essential features of organizational structure and function may be derived from the characteristics of human decision-making processes and rational human choice" (p. 11). Two things should be noticed: on the one hand, the organization is conceived as a whole which, if looked at carefully, consists of individual human decisions. It is not clear how this aggregation of single decisions becomes an organization. And in fact, throughout the book, organizations are treated as 'large' or 'complex individuals'. On the other hand, the basic unit is not human activity in general, or something like semiosis, but decision making. Decision making underlies the whole organizational structure. Perception and knowledge are secondary to decision making. "Individual behaviors and organizational practices are defined by a framework of goals, expectations and learned methods, a framework that, in effect, serves a theory of action"(p. 220).
It should be clear, by now, that we consider Choo's book to provide an important challenge for semiotics. Not only are the topics discussed profoundly semiotic in nature. The author also takes, though implicitly, a position in the field of semiotic theorizing. And that, we think, offers a basis for a fruitful and eventually far-reaching discussion on organizational semiotics.
a)the phase of knowledge creation and knowledge conversion,We have categorized the research questions in themes, such as 1) stages and phases in conversion and creation; 2) the types and forms of representation; 3) theoretical considerations.
b)the ratio and range of the various kinds of knowledge in the organization, that is to say of implicit, tacit and explicit knowledge, and of declarative and procedural knowledge,
c)the forms of presentation and representation of knowledge,
d)the kinds of tasks that have to be executed (tasks in a generic perspective),
e)the information and communication infrastructure of the organization,
Concerning stages and phases in conversion and creation, questions are what are the strong and weak points in applying learning and knowledge conversion to the description of changes in individuals and organizations? Furthermore, is "the learning of an organization" more than (or equal to) the sum of the learningindividuals, and if it is more, what kind of operationalization (also empirically verifiable) can be given?
Concerning the types and forms of representation questions are: does a fixed sequence of concrete, iconic, symbolic and other kinds of (external) representations exist in the case of learning (knowledge creation) and knowledge conversion? Furthermore, what operationaliz-ation of implicit knowledge (tacit, personal, etc.) is most adequate in the case of knowledge management and knowledge conversion?
Concerning the theoretical considerations questions are what elements constitute a theory of knowledge conversion? If we start with representations (and signs) as elementary notions in forms and types of knowledge, is the conceptual framework of semiotics suitable for the description of interpretation and communication mechanisms?
The project consists of a theoretical part as discussed above, a methodological part and an empirical part. The methodological part consists in the development of tools by which it is possible to make so-called 'knowledge photographs' of tasks executed by actors in organizations. We will use and expand the KADS-methodology (Knowledge Acquisition and Documentation Structure) developed to facilitate the realization of knowledge systems. The empirical part implies the measurement of knowledge conversion and knowledge creation in the domains of management of information systems (using methods such as ITIL -Information Technology Infrastructure Library-) and the organizational implementation of planning and scheduling supporting software.
The perspective chosen on knowledge conversion and innovation in organizations is explicitly semiotic. This semiotic perspective allows us to focus on the representational aspects of both organizations, and processes of knowledge creation, innovation and conversion. We assume that organizations are semiotic constructions used by human actors to interpret their environment and act according to these interpretations. Thus the organization, understood asa symbolic construction, both in its functioning as well as in its structure, becomes part of the whole of the knowledge individuals have to deal with. It becomes part of their 'semiosphere'.
The first results of this project will be available at the end of 1999 (see the CASTOR-web site).
Gazendam, W.H.M. (1993) Variety controls variety: on the use of organizational theories in information management. Groningen: Wolters-Noordhoff.
Heusden, B.P. van, & R.J. Jorna (1996). "Semiotics of the user interface." Semiotica 109, 3/4: pp. 237-250.
Kulthau, C.C. (1991) "Inside the Search Process: Information Seeking from the User's Perspective." Journal of the American Society for Information Science 42, No. 5: 361-371.
Leonard-Barton, D. (1995) Wellspring of Knowledge: Building and Sustaining the Sources of Innovation. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Nonaka, H & I. Takeuchi (1995) The Knowledge Creating Company. Oxford: Oxford U.P.
Taylor, R.S. (1991) "Information Use Environments." In eds. B. Dervin and M.J. Voigt, Progress in Communication Science, 217-254, Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.
Weick , K.E. (1995) Sense-making in organizations. Thousand Oaks, Canada: Sage.
Wikstrom, S. and R. Norman (1994) Knowledge and Value: A New Perspective on Corporate Transformation. London, UK: Routledge.
René Jorna is Associate Professor in Knowledge Systems and Decision Support Systems at the Faculty of Management and Organization, University of Groningen. As (co-)author he has published books on Knowledge in Organizations, 1992; Signs, Search and Communication, 1993; Planning and Scheduling, 1996, and articles on planning and scheduling support, knowledge systems, semiotics and cognition. Presently he is project leader of the CASTOR-project (knowledge Creation And Semiotic Theories of Organization and Representation) e-mail: email@example.com
Barend van Heusden teaches Semiotics and Literary Theory in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Groningen. He co-edited, with René Jorna, two volumes on semiotics, expert systems and cognition. He has written books and articles, both in Dutch and in English, on literary semiotics and on the dynamics of semiotic evolution. Presently he is member of the CASTOR-project. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org