Negative Knowledge, Expertise and Organisations
Abstract: There has been a particular emphasis on knowledge and competence as increasingly important resources for successful enterprises. This notion of knowledge is based on 'positive knowledge', which considers knowing as merely a constructive, linear and accumulative process. We will introduce the notion of 'negative knowledge', which involves 'giving up' or 'bracketing' knowledge in certain situations. When experts encounter something that is incompatible with their knowledge, they should be sensitive enough to recognise a new situation by reconsidering or suspending their action. In addition to exploring the idea of 'unlearning', the paper introduces three other aspects of negative knowledge: 'to know what we do not know', 'to know what not to do' and 'the value of failure'. Negative knowledge seems to be possible, useful and even necessary in expert organisations because old ways of thinking or knowing something often prevent us from seeing new potentials.
Their discussion of negative knowledge reminds me of the colloquial definition of wisdom, the ability to learn from mistakes. Specifically, their characterization of negative knowledge contains more hints to this definition:
- to know what one does not know: experts are usually aware of their own competence, but they must also know what they do not know and what they should know
- to know what not to do: experts must know both how to achieve goals and how to avoid disasters, namely ‘learning what not to do’
- unlearning and bracketing knowledge: experts may get into a situation when they have to give up some parts of their knowing and ‘unlearn’ or ‘bracket’ their skills and know-how
- failures and mistakes: experts should also regard the value of failures,
disappointments and frustrations as emotions, as well as recognise the creativity that emerges from making mistakes.
The authors then apply their concept of negative knowledge to the concept of expertise and positive knowledge, which are usually considered cumulative on past expertise and knowledge. They us an example of a gaming company designing a new game to discuss areas in which it is critical that experts apply negative knowledge along with their positive expertise. I couldn't help but think that interface designers and usability engineers have to be at the forefront of being explicit about unlearning and relearning how people might interact with a new game. I particularly like their emphasis on how negative knowledge bears out in collective work with other experts or even with the "non-expert" population.
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