What Is Integral Knowledge Management And Why Do We Need It?

Why do organizations struggle to consistently achieve results in knowledge management (KM)? Every employee in an organization can testify to the various pain points that KM is supposed to address in organizations, and they usually acknowledge the helpfulness of some individual tools and methods, but almost all organizations struggle to put them into a coherent conceptual framework that explains when and why KM as a whole succeeds in an organization, and when and why it doesn’t. I suspect that one of the key reasons for this might be the failure to adapt the type of KM approach to the values and work conditions of the organizations it is applied in, as well as the values and life conditions of the workers that are the target of the KM initiatives.

Whenever we ask someone in an organization what KM is really about, we get invariably different responses. Some will emphasize the structured organization of existing documents and information, the next one will highlight mandatory business processes, some others will talk about learning and innovation, while yet others propose it is all about free-flowing exchange among people and networks. Why this difference in responses? Because different people will have a different perception of what “knowledge” itself means to them, and therefore what ways are best suited to deal with it (aka “manage it”). The truth of course is that they are all partially right. But because people will answer the overarching question “what does knowledge mean to you” based on their own value set and where they are in their life in general, they will focus mostly on those aspects that speaks to their specific needs, values and particular worldview.

KM at different stages of socio-psychological development

This is where evolutionary models of socio-psychological development, specifically Integral Theory and Spiral Dynamics, come in. By applying their model of stages of human development to the business discipline of Knowledge Management, Integral Knowledge Management (Integral KM) fills this gap and shows under which circumstances specific KM elements, tools and methods can add value (and where they might not). This enables organizations to understand their knowledge workers better, avoid costly mistakes in the implementation of KM initiatives and instead assemble a portfolio of KM interventions that are suited to the environment they are applied in and the people that are supposed to apply them.

But what does ‘integral’ mean, and what makes something integral in this context? The term ‘integral’ refers to a specific worldview in the Spiral Dynamics (SD) model (developed by Don Beck, Chris Cowan and Ken Wilber based on the work of Clare Graves). For the sake of this post, we will look at six different worldviews that the Spiral Dynamics model distinguishes. (There are two more, namely one before the magic worldview, and one after the integral worldview, but they don’t add much to the purpose of this specific discussion about knowledge management). Each worldview was assigned a color by Beck and Cowan, which have no specific meaning other than to make it easier to refer to them: 

  1. The magic worldview (PURPLE) seeks to protect itself from a world that is filled with magic and forces outside of its control.
  2. The hero worldview (RED) thinks primarily in win/lose power relations
  3. The absolutistic worldview (BLUE) champions collective rules and absolute truth
  4. The modern worldview (ORANGE) pursues rational science, competition and personal success
  5. The post-modern worldview (GREEN) values community, global diversity and inclusion
  6. The integral worldview (YELLOW) values adaptation and tries to integrate the strengths from each of these other worldviews into an overarching systemic whole.

The term “integral” thus refers to this last worldview that looks at various historic ways of seeing the world as each holding an important piece of the puzzle without being sufficient on their own. To learn more about what the Spiral Dynamics model is about, this website is a good start.

So lets go through the difference worldviews (also called vMemes or value systems in SD language) and spell out what role knowledge plays and how knowledge management as a discipline works in each of them.

PURPLE – The magic organization

In the PURPLE worldview knowledge provides identity and belonging. Knowledge comes from the elders and is handed down from generation to generation in the forms of stories, rituals and practices. The ancestors are revered for their mystical powers and wisdom, and the goal is to protect this knowledge (and the rites and practices by which it is preserved) in order to ensure the safety of the social unit. Outside forces are not rationally understood, and therefore threatening, so attempts are made to establish control and a sense of safety through rituals and symbols that convey protection and meaning. Practical experiential knowledge about the ecology of one’s surroundings is intertwined with mystical beliefs and practices, superstition and pre-institutional religion. The knowledge organization is looked at like a family that holds unique generational knowledge which protects it from the outside world.

While this stage of development is most dominant in indigenous societies, we can observe some of its characteristics within our modern societal structures and organizations as well. And if an organization has employees with a strong PURPLE value set, it must cater to their needs in order to mobilize them for knowledge management.

So how can we mobilize coworkers with their gravitational center in this worldview? We can celebrate and reaffirm the principles of the organizational founders, and derive action and policies from experiential history. Affirm the value of indigenous ecological knowledge and use it to guide practical applications that provide value to the organization today. Strengthen a family-like culture among coworkers, where seasons, milestone and rites of passage are consciously and regularly celebrated, and use songs, images and physical items as symbols of organizational knowledge, identity and purpose (sports clubs for example do this very well). Coworkers with their gravitational center in PURPLE are predestined to serve as the elders, advisors or “shamans” of the organization, holding historical knowledge and wisdom that will prove to be of value to the generation making the decisions.

Typical KM initiatives for PURPLE organizations are biographies, organizational histories and corporate museums, as well as any kind of storytelling that conveys meaning and wisdom, supported by practical rituals, practices and symbols that help anchor the experiential knowledge and insights.

While stories, rituals and the reverence of founders can create a sense of identity and community, they will only get us that far in terms of dealing with practical knowledge challenges in today’s organizations. The flipside of a PURPLE worldview is isolationism, aversion to outside knowledge, people and change of any sort, and a tendency to reject today’s reality in favor of a frozen-in-time image of history.

RED – The hero organization

The key knowledge principle for this worldview is knowledge is power, wherein the world is predominantly seen as a power struggle that knows only winners and losers. Knowledge in this context becomes an instrument to increase one’s sphere of influence and secure one’s position vis-à-vis others. The goal is informational superiority over others in order to achieve the objectives of the in-group and to prevent the out-group from succeeding. Active disinformation and the destruction of existing knowledge or prevention of new knowledge are viable tools in order to dominate opponents. Hero figures with informational superiority or insight venture out to act on their inside knowledge to advance their interests and save themselves and their in-group from defeat. The knowledge organization is looked at like a battleship that uses knowledge to assert its dominance and influence, and the knowledge workers in this image become warriors.

How to mobilize coworkers with their gravitational center in this meme: Emphasize the interest of the organization (in-group) versus the organization’s competition (out-group), and frame KM tools as weapons to be wielded skillfully in order to advance the interests of the tribe. Let ‘heros’ in your organization venture out to discover new knowledge that can strengthen the position of the tribe vis-à-vis others. When RED coworkers have good communication skills, their aptitude for manipulation allows them to extract information where others fail, which can make them excellent investigative journalists or detectives.

Typical KM activities at this level are secretive, closed-door meetings, ideally without any written records (they could be used against you), clandestine information gathering, withholding information as well as whistleblower protocols and source protection.

The downsides to this approach to managing knowledge, however, should be obvious. Knowledge is not shared to the extent it could be as the audience that is “in the know” is very small, learning is very limited and distrust and secrecy tends to prevent productive collaboration and innovation.

BLUE – The absolutistic organization

Within the BLUE worldview is knowledge is order and truth. Orderly structured knowledge allows us to do the things that are right and true. The goal is to teach and affirm what is already known as the right knowledge and disseminate it to those who don’t have it so they may benefit. Knowledge is protected by authoritative gatekeepers and knowledge sharing happens on a need-to-know basis via clearly defined hierarchies and channels. New knowledge that contradicts the group’s ‘right’ knowledge will be passively resisted, purposefully hidden or actively opposed. Long-established knowledge, security of information and confidentiality trumps open knowledge sharing, freedom of thought and innovation. Explicit knowledge in documents and the collection and organization of it, as well as its dissemination via “proper” channels is heavily emphasized over tacit knowledge and unstructured exchange. The knowledge organization is viewed as a bureaucratic institution of doctrine with its history and rulebook as its bible that should be adhered to without deviation.

How to mobilize coworkers with their gravitational center in this meme: Cater to their need of security and structure by establishing a set of explicit rules and guidelines for knowledge documentation and exchange. Put them in charge of necessary archiving tasks, templates or needed taxonomies while keeping the regulatory burden to a minimum. Use them for KM initiatives that require executing top-down instructions and compliance, e.g. documentation for auditing purposes. For the purposes of KM, BLUE coworkers’ sense of order, hierarchies and adherence to rules and processes make them excellent archivists, librarians, evaluators and compliance monitors.

Typical KM initiatives that appear in BLUE organizations are document management systems and taxonomies, centralized lists and databases, editorialized knowledge repositories, archives, libraries, as well as any kind of formal templates and processes that ensure compliance with top-down rules and procedures.

While the absolutistic approach to KM can cover a lot of ground in terms of archiving structures and necessary guidelines and prescriptions, it is not well equipped to facilitate new ideas, innovation or open exchange and discussion with different audiences. Which is where people with modern and post-modern mindsets come in.

ORANGE – The modern organization

The key knowledge principle here is that new knowledge is the key to success. Within the ORANGE worldview, knowledge is empowering individuals and organizations to discover what is not yet known and to explain what is not yet understood, so they can learn, grow and gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace of ideas. Scientific knowledge discovery and technological progress are the key tools, and increased efficiency, effectiveness and performance are the end goal. Proven experiential knowledge as well as academic credentials convey status, which elevates the position of individuals in their social context. The knowledge organization is viewed as a machine that has knowledge as an input and organizational results as an output, with the knowledge worker taking the role of an engineer or assembly-line worker who has to make sure that knowledge is converted into results.

Coworkers with their gravitational center in this worldview are motivated by status and success. To mobilize them, demonstrate how specific knowledge management activities gives them as individuals as well as their organizations a competitive edge. Tie knowledge objectives to their performance scorecard and link KM activities to the strategic objectives of the organization. Provide learning opportunities for professional development and give them channels and platforms through which they can demonstrate their knowledge and promote their status as experts in their fields. Due to their drive for discovery and progress, ORANGE coworkers can be excellent innovators in organizations, as well as, intrapreneurs, technologists and researchers.

Typical KM initiatives driven by ORANGE coworkers are innovation and research efforts, learning initiatives (often in the format of one-to-many), publications that convey latest state-of-the-art knowledge, as well as any kind of technology-driven solution where technological innovation takes center stage, from data warehouse systems, office applications and web content solutions to communication systems, social collaboration tools and artificial intelligence.

However, the focus on achievement, performance and status within the ORANGE worldview also has its downsides. When everything is about goals, numbers and money, what is often lost is the one resource where knowledge comes from in the first place: The people of the organization. Which is why the next worldview has an explicit people focus.

GREEN – The post-modern organization

For the GREEN worldview the key knowledge principle is that all knowledge is valuable and should be shared as widely as possible. In the GREEN worldview, humans and their knowledge needs take center stage and the focus turns to implicit knowledge emerging though conversation, connection and collaboration. Knowledge management is no longer conceptualized as an engineered machine with inputs and outputs, but as a network where everyone engages with everyone, and which should be expanded to include ever more people. Knowledge workers are understood as networkers, facilitators and service workers. Everyone has something to share, and everyone’s knowledge is of equal value, and the best results are achieved through inclusive and diverse collaboration. There are no absolute truths anymore, and the paradigm of knowledge competition is replaced with the paradigm of open knowledge equity. Knowledge workers are trusted to identify knowledge relevant to them via decentralized and self-organized processes and exchanges, while overly rigid structures, processes and templates are rejected.

Coworkers with their gravitational center in this worldview are intrinsically motivated to connect with others, share knowledge and collaborate. For them to function most effectively, they must be given a social networking environment, equipped with digital collaboration tools. Communities of Practice and online knowledge networks, open space workshops as well as social media and corporate social networks are expressions of the style and preferences of GREEN knowledge workers. GREEN coworkers make fantastic workshop facilitators, online community moderators and social media strategists. Learning opportunities for GREEN coworkers must be participatory and value the contributions of all present.

The downsides of a KM approach that heavily emphasizes the GREEN meme can be lack of clear structures and guidelines when they are needed. Free flowing and unstructured knowledge exchange, while being a boon in to innovation and the creation of new opportunities, can become chaotic, make search for explicit materials difficult and tie up colleagues in endless discussions and get-togethers without clear outcomes. Knowledge discovery becomes are function of active networking and social interactions, which disadvantages introvert coworkers who diligently work away in their cubicles, but don’t like to put themselves out there. Most of all, because all opinions are important and hierarchies are rejected, GREEN organizations have a hard time making tough executive decisions when needed.

YELLOW – The integral organization

For the integral worldview Knowledge is complex, multi-faceted and always changing. Integral, aka YELLOW thinking understands that all the previously expressed views of knowledge and knowledge management are, to use Ken Wilbers words, “true but partial”. The goal therefore is to discern which methods, tools and practices are helpful in any particular context, and which are not, use only those that add value in a given situation, and integrate the various elements into something that is bigger than the sum of its parts (hence the term “integral”). The YELLOW worldview looks at the knowledge organization as a system in which all the previous worldviews, mechanisms and experiences are present, interconnected and mutually influencing each other, and which itself is embedded in again larger systems of the economic, political or social sphere that it needs to navigate. Knowledge is understood as always incomplete, always fluid, always changing. However, unlike the GREEN meme, YELLOW acknowledges that not all knowledge is equal, that knowledge hierarchies do exist and have real world consequences. The organization in this worldview is neither a family, warring tribe, or a bureaucracy, nor a high-achieving machine or a diverse network. Instead, it is seen as a living organism that integrates all those images, always adapts to changing circumstances and pragmatically and flexibly does whatever it needs to in order to succeed in a particular situation. It does so by activating specific strengths of the organization as family, war tribe, bureaucracy, machine or network, whenever helpful.

Coworkers with their gravitational center in YELLOW usually do not need to be explicitly mobilized for knowledge exchange. They naturally seek out information and knowledge from different parts of the system and actively seek to disseminate it throughout the system, all while pushing for a non-ideological, integrated approach that acknowledges the different contributions and the value-add from all other modes of KM. YELLOW coworkers can speak the language of colleagues at all previous memes and are suited to mobilize them by playing to their distinctive preferences and skills. They therefore can serve the organization well as strategists, advisors, trainers and cross-organizational diplomats.

Typical KM initiatives driven by YELLOW coworkers will often apply agile development techniques, systems thinking and systemic design, complexity science (e.g. the Cynefin framework), collective intelligence and sensemaking approaches, and will work on the development of knowledge strategies, trainings, advocacy campaigns and organizational transformation projects that integrate various different elements from different development stages as needed.

Towards an integral knowledge management approach

Of course, the above is a gross oversimplification of both the SD model and the realities of KM in our organizations. Every model is wrong, but some are useful, as the adage goes. And of course, no snigle organization is exclusively grounded in just one specific worldview. In reality, all worldviews are present in every organization (and in fact every individual), and there is maybe a center of gravity around which the organizational culture revolves. However, I believe applying the frame of this development model to KM gives us a new perspective of how to think about our corporate KM strategies and practices, and can give us a viable path forward where the discipline previously has always been stuck:

1.       It explains the frictions between different people within an organization who have vastly different ideas of what KM should focus on (e.g. BLUE’s focus on explicit knowledge and closed mandatory processes vs. GREEN’s focus on implicit knowledge and open exchanges)

2.       It acknowledges that none of the opinions voiced about KM in an organization are fully right or wrong, but that each of them holds partial truth and has validity within the context of the person who is expressing them. The real harm instead comes from claiming exclusivity for one’s own view, ignoring the downsides of pursing a path exclusively based on one worldview (and therefore view of KM), at the expense of ignoring the strengths of all other worldviews.

3.       It maps out a way how the different needs and values present in an organization can be catered to at the same time, by avoiding a “one-size-fits-all” strategic approach to KM and instead utilizing the strengths of different worldviews in situations where they are helpful, while unideologically setting aside those elements that do not add value in a particular situation.

Most of all, however, practicing integral KM allows us to become conciliators in a world increasingly dominated by hardened ideological battle lines and polarized opinions. It allows us to accept that every knowledge worker has a right to be where they are, and to have the needs and values they have. Our job is not to judge or to play one opinion or approach against the other, but to mitigate worldview expressions that are harmful to our groups, organizations and the world, and to integrate those elements that are healthy, useful and beneficial for all of us. This of course goes much farther than the discipline of KM, but if KM can contribute even a small part to this mission, I will be very proud to be part of the KM profession. 

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