posted 2 Jul 2001 in Volume 4 Issue 10
The management of truth
The next step for KM?
Like knowledge management the management of truth seems to be an oxymoron. But according to Martin Ward truth management is essential to human life and an all-pervasive activity related to and as important as the management of knowledge.
‘Truth’ is many faceted. It is a value (‘true’ versus false); it has an informational content (‘truths’); and existentially it refers to beliefs that are ‘true for me’ or ‘us’. We bridle at the idea of the management of truth because truth also inhabits the elusive world of universals – surely things are either true or not (the ‘truth’). Truth in this sense smacks of transcendence in a world that has largely turned its back on transcendence. Popper reminds us that in the world of objective knowledge things are only provisionally true until a new hypothesis comes along to replace a disproved one. The idea that truth is totally relative however is an impossible one to live by: we all expect to get the right change otherwise society wouldn’t work.
We deal with truth in our personal lives. While we appreciate truthfulness from others we ourselves are also in some sense solitary seekers after truth. We want to be true to ourselves. We feel we should be true to those we love. Certain truths are ‘true for me’ or more likely becoming ‘true for me’. They characterise me; they provide me with identity. We all also know and seek the ‘real’ in the life of relationships and long-term goals: real love as opposed to the fake variety. Beneath all this now largely subconscious is the vast variety of commonly-accepted truths that were once external to us like manners and etiquette which through acculturation education and socialisation we have albeit imperfectly internalised and acknowledge even when we have not. Thus truth like knowledge has its explicit and its tacit faces.
In social interaction every conversation is a presentation of ourselves in the sense described by Erving Goffman. However frank we are there is always inside us a ‘back region’ of (sometimes mercifully) un-stated truths. In the presentation of self there is always a knowledge discrepancy. We let out the truth in a perpetual subtle process of giving and withholding shaping refraining and intoning with words and body language. What chameleons do with their skin we do with words and gestures. And often we are perforce far from frank. Imagine what hell life would be if we could not manage truth in this way. In the world of encounter and existence as opposed to the world of universals and being knowledge and truth are inevitably fragmented and incomplete. We do not know enough let alone about what is true to successfully discover or disclose ‘the whole truth’ in our bitty everyday lives.
We live in and between a multitude of different groups in the family work and our circle of friends. Groups come to have their own norms of truth; what we believe how we do things around here what action is right what we really amount to and what the criteria are for judging new twists of fate and knowledge encounters. In this sense every group manages truth. There are leaders; there are also sub-groups within the group which may be struggling to impress their own criteria for truth making on the group as a whole; and there are deviants who may be tolerated or persecuted. Truth is a powerful societal value like time or human nature pervasive and variable in all societies.
The world of work is thoroughly permeated with the idea of truth. ‘True’ or ‘false’ is at the heart of every computer. Standards and quality assurance are one aspect of truth’s rule; statistical confidence is another. Verification and validation are among the huge range of vital concepts that stem from the value of truth.
The corporation is a special arena within the world of groups in which all the facets of truth hitherto touched on operate with an extra dimension of conscious and systematic control – management in the conventional sense. The company is a group of people and the same laws operate in their individual or common lives as elsewhere.
Facing outwards the corporation has to account for itself and its environment in a world of competing truth claims. It has to formulate and assert its identity and raison d’ être. It has to provide a narrative about its achievements decisions and performance. It has to have a view of the world and of the problems that are characteristic of its field of endeavours. For this it needs a language a quiver of meanings axioms and paradigms. There will also be icons and holy grails. In this the corporation is presenting itself to the world which means there will inevitably be a back region of secret knowledge hidden by firewalls and security systems in which esoteric knowledge will be fostered. Problematical truths will be hammered out in the privacy of the boardroom. In a world of flux and uncertainty the corporation has to speak with coherence and confidence.
To do this the corporation will have at its disposal its mission and vision statements its logo its annual report website press releases brochures house magazines and conferences. Coherent and meaningful statements can only issue from observation analysis and planning. They must be responsive to change like an ongoing narrative. They can only be made coherent by a ‘philosophy’ a word used in the business world to denote not adherence to a formal logical standpoint but a set of dynamic principles and concepts rooted in a view of truth appropriate to both aims and circumstances. No doubt these principles could be unwrapped and their logical implications exposed be they utilitarian or pragmatic (to name two likely contenders).
An example of a paradigm at work is the company mission statement. In my own company Ricardo an automotive consultancy this might a few years ago have been “to exploit the possibilities of the internal combustion engine in research and development”. The advent of the fuel cell has rendered this particular statement a little doubtful as a paradigm: the internal combustion engine is no longer the be-all and end-all – or icon – of the company’s business environment.
The actual mission statement is “to be at the centre of the automotive industry”. Ricardo is not big enough to claim to be at the top of the industry. Its claim to centricity reflects its status as a knowledge company and in terms of knowledge it is a correct claim: it works at the heart of things on the crest of the knowledge wave. The icon has shifted to ‘knowledge’. Note that the achievement is positioned in the future: it is a statement of faith of truth coming to be.
An example of a view of the world is reflected in Ricardo’s practice up to a few years ago of summarising the corporate view on a range of engineering subjects in publicly available statements. Technical papers frequently begin with a statement of the general problem under examination while their conclusions reflect Ricardo’s own contribution to changing the world by its achievements.
An annual report is always seen as an opportunity to state the principles that have led to the financial achievements it describes. Implicit truth claims are substantiated by profits and turnover. The narrative takes numerical form.
Ricardo’s language is that of a business and it also uses the jargon of engineering. Because of the advanced nature of its work Ricardo has created or centralised a number of terms of its own. ‘Comet’ for many years stood for Ricardo’s pioneering work in the development of indirect injection diesel engines for automotive use. ‘Ceres’ and ‘Hydra’ are other brand names of more recent times though less centrally impressive. Software programs such as VECTIS and WAVE carry instant messages about Ricardo’s position in simulation work. The creation of wholly new terminology is the tip of the iceberg in a continual re-working of engineering terms and meanings. It is an activity built around certain basic engineering axioms that are universally shared such as the laws of thermodynamics – absolute truth?
An example of a holy (in our case oily) grail is the reduction of fuel consumption and of emissions to meet the demands of legislation and international agreements such as the Kyoto summit conference on the environment. As the legislative demands tighten the grail is constantly receding; we have to be in constant pursuit.
Of course Ricardo is proactive in its search. Esoteric knowledge that is unique to the company is built up by research and development and hidden from view behind the firewall. Or it may be partially let out in the form of patents for example Ricardo’s differential gear system of a few years ago.
Examples of truth claims can be found in every brochure that asserts the particular range of skills and facilities we possess. These are statements of fact but implicitly they are claims that compete with those of our rivals. A specific example is our claim about our POWERLINK database and the Ricardo Library which we believe to be the biggest collection of powertrain literature in the world. If this claim were empty it would bring us nothing but embarrassment.
Ricardo’s philosophies are discussed in every technical paper we publish and more openly in our international conferences. The philosophy is part of the knowledge that we sell and competes with the alternative philosophies of our rivals. A business philosophy is reflected in Ricardo’s policy of developing very close relationships with key clients rather than dissipating our energies in a wide range of small contracts.
The fluctuations of business life ensure that the truths spelled out in corporate communications must issue from a tacit basis. They have to reflect a groundwork of tacit ready-to-be-made-explicit assumptions and perceptions which no adherence to a mere text can achieve. Truth has here also its tacit and explicit faces. The corporate view must not wander too far from the realities of the outside world. It parts company with the thinking of the City and other shareholders at its peril.
Facing inwards the corporation’s management must also somehow keep in tune with the truth-making activities and tastes of the natural groups of which it is made up. Ricardo’s statements to its own staff make explicit in a way that is generally acceptable the beliefs values and norms of the company culture. These statements – they can also be actions like promotions and restructuring – offer a means of endorsing decisions of accounting for events internal and external of motivating guiding and leading. To manage is to make explicit the way in which life at work is to be lived and the terms in which it can be understood – terms that people will readily make their own.
Ricardo’s works council is one of the ways in which feedback from the natural group life of the company can reach its managers. The fact that so many of the latter are promoted from within the company ensures some kind of commonality and continuity in the debates about what is right.
The quality assurance (QA) system with its requirements to match up to objectively posited and monitored standards makes a powerful nexus of truths to live by in the engineer’s everyday life. A recent survey revealed how some of the staff resented the pressures involved while others believed that the system does not go far enough. Yet others helped to create and maintain the system. These three positions stemmed not from subjective vagaries but from rational views of the priorities involved: some of the objectors saw the QA system as interfering with the work for clients. Dislike of computers and paperwork by some older staff members reflected their more limited and outdated view of the true role of the engineer not just subjective feelings. The computer and its culture has for today’s engineers an iconic rite of passage status so absolutely central is it to their work.
If there is a wide enough truth discrepancy between management and other staff conflict will result as in the case of the London Ambulance Service’s attempts to replace grassroots understandings and communication systems with an imposed computerised system. Here as Lucas Intronas has observed there was a struggle “for the truth” . A similar conflict is currently reflected in the attempt to substitute computerised navigation systems for the tacit knowledge of London’s taxi drivers.
It can be seen from these reflections that the management of truth need not be a step towards the panopticon of Foucault’s nightmare . It is in fact a conscious and systematic form of what is normal in the lives of both groups and individuals. Without it there would be chaos. An element of consent is essential if it is to work.
The management of truth interlocks with the management of knowledge. Knowledge management organises the knowledge available to a corporation. Crucial parts of the knowledge involved have the high-level status of truth as distinct from peripheral information. Truth is knowledge loaded with value for the way in which we live and the goals for which we strive. In this sense truth management is a special and vital form of knowledge management. It is truth not wisdom that is the next stage up.
1. Goffman E. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Doubleday 1959)
2. Iintrona L.D. Management Information and Power: A Narrative of the Involved Manager (Macmillan Press 1997)
3. Foucault M. ‘Truth and power’ in Gordon C. (ed.) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977 (Pantheon Books pp.109-133)
Martin Ward is an information specialist working for the Information Services Department of Ricardo Consulting Engineers. He can be contacted at: email@example.com