Editorial Introduction

by Peter Harries-Jones

December 2002


            This issue of SEED sketches some of the possibilities of a semio-cognitive approach to a range of questions and issues surrounding information use, organization of the workplace and knowledge management.  How  would work-practices, organizational procedures, and executive action in knowledge production  change if these were more responsive to the ideas of social semiotics (Shields, Clarke and Jorna) or, even more deeply and pervasively if their practices were informed by  ‘neuro-semiosis’ rather than the prevailing mechanistic, a-semiotic neuroscience (Favareau)?


            Each of the articles express reservations, some severe, about current knowledge-worker practices, or the science behind them,  where problems of meaning are not central to the production of knowledge; or where the presence of an ubiquitous sign-exchange is stripped of its interpretative context; or where  processes of mediation  accompanying  interactive interplay in those interpretative contexts are either ignored or screened out. This improbable situation has arisen, the articles suggest, because both cognitive science and organization theories relating to knowledge production have an overwhelming concern to avoid  a ‘subjectivist’ approach.   Thus, the types of sign exchange activity recorded in cognitive science  assume that  ‘information’ flows through organic neurons in the way that electricity flows through a copper wire - a long-standing conception in neuroscience (Favareau).  In the organization of the ‘knowledge-based’ economy,  that which cannot be captured in the unambiguous categories of databases of Information Technology is regarded as totally unproductive - frequently the discard is labelled  as ‘tacit’ knowledge (Shields). Yet  to be  an ‘effective’ knowledge worker, the actor in an organization must have  skills of interpretation which include an ability to translate his or her interpretation into organizational discourse.   Study of this process quickly reveals the vital contribution of ‘tacit’ knowledge of persons (subjects) as an important type in knowledge production (Jorna) and result in possibilities for successful re-negotiation of work-practice (Clarke).


            Favareau traces how the standard literature of neuroscience represents  neuronal sign processes simply as signals.  The thrust of his article is to introduces semiotic components of sign exchange, transforming signals and their  carriers  into sign-objects, sign interpretants and sign vehicles.  He seeks to  re-present neuroscience as neurosemiotics, with his  main documentation drawn from the neurobiology of vision. The eye, like the total sensory sheet, is a sign-vehicle, whose cell by cell activity is not so much ‘brute’ interpretation, but as neurobiology suggests,  an entire cascade of top-down and bottom-up recursively generating semiosis across levels of interpretative and meta-interpretative activity. Properly seen body, brain, mind and cell are all levels of one interacting complex system. In this respect ‘the eye’ orients the individual toward yet another level, the meaning of the self, or self-conception of the “I” in cultural sign-exchange.


            Shields, Clarke and Jorna take up in various ways thought and meaning in organizations that are in some way subject to routinized work-practices or ‘knowledge management.’ For Shields the centre of discussion is the way in which all communication and representation is ‘virtual’ and, therefore subject to emergent meanings resulting from the interaction of experience and communicative contexts. The management of knowledge in organizations tends to ignore  ‘virtual semiosis’ and instead represents knowledge and its management as little more than  various forms of data capture. Indeed, the OECD defines  knowledge as an intangible but ‘fixed asset’ of a corporation.  Shields argues that  virtualities - ideal but real-  distinguish ‘knowledge’ from the materiality of data.  For example, only the virtual can deal with the imagination of totality.  A failure to take virtual semiosis into account both slows down the circulation of meaningful information in an organization and increases the likelihood  poor risk-taking in ‘knowledge management’ situations, as well as increasing the magnitude of ‘risk.’.


            Clarke examines the possibilities of using linguistic method to frame social semiosis in the contexts of work-practices, for example, how the field of work-practices might be  translated into a field of texts, discourse and dialogics.   He finds that Bakhtin’s ‘translinguistics’ is useful as a means for providing a dynamic view of systems use but does not provide methods for analysis of actual work texts in specific situations.  Clarke  requires a refinement in the concepts of discourse and dialogics (Bakhtin) by invoking social subjects and individual subjectivity.  Subjectivity here refers to the conditions of individuality and self-awareness formed and re-formed under changing social, economic and historical circumstances.  He also  finds it necessary to invoke a ‘social semiotics’ as an important addition to Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), a semiotic model of language which is indebted to the work of Halliday. The contribution that social semiotics makes is to enable a study of work-practices in a-typical situations or in situations where the outcome may be a redefinition or renegotiation of the staging and goals of the work-practice.    


            Finally, Jorna takes up again the interrelation of data, information and knowledge and notes that knowledge itself is not something that comes ready-made into cognition.  Instead it is closely connected with the person who has knowledge, and is mentally re-structured and constructed again and again. Nor is knowledge of a single type.  Jorna identifies three types of knowledge that enter into the ‘management’ of knowledge in organizations - sensory or ‘tacit’ knowledge, coded or knowledge of conventions about relations of substitution, which  makes communication easier within the organization, and theoretical knowledge. In reality sensory, coded and theoretical knowledge are not divided in a clear-cut way, but the distribution of types, or the domination of one type over another has implications for  co-operation and co-ordination and, ultimately with organizational forms. A number of results follow from this, including the duration and speed of the implementation of innovation.