Does Philosophy Matter for Information Systems Design?
Angela Lacerda Nobre
Escola Superior de Ciências Empresariais, Instituto Politécnico de Setúbal ESCE-IPS
Campus do IPS, 2914-503 Setúbal, Portugal
Keywords: Organisational Learning, Heidegger’s ontology, information systems design, socio-philosophy, social
context, situatedness, discursiveness, understanding and being-in-the-world.
Abstract: Organisational learning has gained wide recognition both among academics and practitioners. The need to
focus on core knowledge processes and to consider both their tacit and their explicit dimensions has led
organisations to value the contributions from socio-philosophy. Heidegger’ ontology, in particular, is highly
relevant because it radically shifts the attention towards the situated and discursive dimensions of
organisational social contexts. This attention, focused on social practices and on language use, has critical
implications to information systems design because it addresses the mechanisms through which work
systems and their supporting technology help to determine ways of being.
Organisational learning is part of the broader and
more general area of organisational studies. The
‘organisational learning’ metaphor was first used by
Argyris and Schön, in 1978, and then it was
popularised by Senge (1990) and others through the
concept of the ‘learning organisation’. Ever since,
we have witnessed a growing interest in this area,
both among practitioners and among academicians.
The concept of learning is highly complex and
culturally marked (Cook, Yanow, 1993). As
individuals, we often recognise as learning only
external contributions to our knowledge, what
someone has taught us. We seldom value the
importance of our own experiences, attitudes,
efforts, values and previous knowledge that
apparently have a far greater importance to the
effectiveness of the learning process itself. This is
the argument of experiential based perspectives on
learning (Dewey, 1938). Our own attitudes and
mindset are deeply linked and intertwined with our
social environment, again, culturally marked.
The pace of change in our societies, the
technological evolution, the globalisation of
markets, and the centrality of knowledge, leads
organisations to value learning as an ongoing
process (Castells, 1998). This learning process, in
turn, needs to be understood, valued and mastered.
Living in a society that shows a prevalence for
‘individuality’ we seldom incorporate the lessons
from social theory into everyday organisational
Both management theories, that focus on
achieving results, and organisation theories, that
focus on the logic and structure, the organisation,
that is behind those results, are gradually showing a
new interest in the social aspects of human
interaction. This situation is particularly important
for knowledge-intensive organisations, or
knowledge-based, that can be described as
organisations where knowledge is valued and
understood as their core competence (Drucker,
1999). Knowledge, within this context, is interpreted
in a broad form incorporating technical, and explicit
and tacit elements (Polanyi, 1958), as well as
cultural and social aspects (Cook, Yanow, 1993,
Gherardi, Nicolini, 2001, Elkjaer, 2003). When
studying collective activity, behaviour and explicit
knowledge are the main visible elements. However,
behind observable behaviour we have meanings and
motives that direct and determine people’s actions
and decision-making processes (Gherardi, Nicolini,
2001). Organisational learning has to be understood
and analysed in a way that is consistent with this
background of social key concepts.
Organisational learning plays an active role in
every organisation as it is, in itself, a condition for
Lacerda Nobre A. (2007).
ORGANISATIONAL LEARNING AND HEIDEGGER’S ONTOLOGY - Does Philosophy Matter for Information Systems Design?.
In Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference on Enterprise Information Systems - ISAS, pages 498-501
DOI: 10.5220/0002391704980501
survival. Organisational learning already exists,
spontaneously and implicitly (Dixon, 2000). As
Burgoyne (1995) jokingly argues, organisational
learning, like the health state of individuals, “is
always there”; however, its quality and degree of
consciousness in relation to its actual state may vary.
Probably one of the most interesting and
illuminating ways to grasp meaning creation within
a community is through Martin Heidegger’s [1889-
1976] thought. Heidegger’s work Being and Time
(1996), first published in 1927, in which he defines
the notion of ‘being-in-the-world’, proposes a
radically innovative ontology that has changed the
course of development of phenomenology,
contemporary hermeneutics and social philosophy.
Heidegger’s philosophy is centred on the
question of Being, and it develops a complex
account of our being-in-the-world (Heidegger,
1996). Heidegger believed that Western philosophy
had lost touch with the important questions of
human existence. He gave an urgent account of the
human search for the significance of our own
“being”, and of human life as a search for its own
meaning and identity, unaided by any external
authority or fixed values (Guignon, 1983).
Heidegger’s phenomenology of everydayness works
to counteract the tendency toward the displacement
of meaning into subjectivity, which began with the
rise of modern science. By regarding the self as
nothing other than its meaningful expressions,
Heidegger is able to fully break away from the
Cartesian tradition (Guignon, 1983).
Since the seventeenth century there has been a
growth in interest in knowledge and cognition which
rose from the earlier development of modern science
in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Knowledge
had always been important to humankind but this
knowledge was previously understood as being
implicitly contextualised and embedded, while in
modern age it acquired as if a life of its own,
independent and autonomous from the contexts from
which it emerged. This process is explained by
Guignon (1983), an expert on Heidegger’s ontology
who claims that, with modernity, the
epistemological question gained precedence above
the ontological concern, and that the importance of
Heidegger’s monumental work is related with this
shift in perspectives.
Ontological concerns are inseparable from the
contexts where knowledge processes take place
(Guignon, 1983). In technical terms, with modern
age, the epistemologic concern of “knowledge about
knowledge” became prioritary. The ontological
question of the context of such knowledge, and of
who and what is this being whose knowledge is
being considered, was neglected (Guignon, 1983).
Guignon (1983), based on Heidegger’s work, argues
that any epistemology is necessarily based on certain
ontological assumptions, and though these may be
unacknowledged and unidentified they can never
stop being present. The dominance of epistemic
concerns over ontological ones needs to be balanced
in favour of further comprehension of reality as a
whole, and of the ontological dimensions of
knowledge (Guignon, 1983).
Heidegger’s (1996) ontology developed from
Husserl’s phenomenology, which explicitly calls
attention not to individuals in isolation but to the
individual in context. Individuals are constantly
affected, determined and conditioned by surrounding
circumstances. There is a change of perspective in
phenomenological studies so that the focus of
attention goes to the overall environment, and to the
social embeddedness and continuous networks of
relationships which take place in such environment.
Almost every great philosophical work carries
with it a more or less explicit reinterpretation of the
nature of philosophy and the methods appropriate to
fulfilling its aims. As was referred above, Heidegger
shifts his orientation from epistemology to ontology
(Guignon, 1983). For Heidegger, the basic theme of
philosophy is being. The question of Being has this
central position because any inquiry into one of the
areas of philosophy, e.g., epistemology, logic, ethics,
or aesthetics, operates within a tacit set of
presuppositions about the being of the entities with
which it deals (Guignon, 1983). What is true of the
discipline of philosophy holds for the sciences as
well. Every science presupposes some conception of
the Being of the entities that are the objects of its
inquiry. The ontologies of the regional sciences,
Heidegger says, have already been worked out
“roughly and naively” on the basis of our
prescientific ways of interpreting and experimenting
domains of being (Heidegger 1996, Guignon, 1983).
Scientists work within frameworks that determine in
advance what sorts of question are appropriate and
what kinds of answer will make sense. Generally,
there is no need for scientists to question the
ontological frameworks in which they work. During
periods of crisis in science, however, it is precisely
these frameworks that are called in question
(Guignon, 1983).
When what are at issue in the sciences are no
longer questions within the frameworks of those
sciences but the very frameworks themselves, the
Systems Design?
ontological presuppositions of the regional inquiries
must be made explicit (Heidegger 1996, Guignon,
1983). Heidegger believes that philosophy alone can
fulfil this role. Philosophy that he sees as not itself
being bound by any framework, and which is the
study of frameworks in general. The inquiry into the
Being of entities in general Heidegger calls
“ontology taken in the widest sense” (Heidegger
1996, Guignon, 1983). It is a “science of Being as
such”, and its task is to provide “a genealogy of the
different possible ways of Being”. Ontology in the
widest sense lays out the conditions for the
possibility of any science. And philosophy, as
ontology in the widest sense, is the “science of
sciences” (Heidegger 1996, Guignon, 1983).
The Anglo-American tradition, according to
Guignon (1983), generally tends to see philosophy
as a set of current topics or problems that are to be
discussed within pre-given frameworks. The method
is argument and counter-argument along tacitly
agreed-upon guidelines. In contrast, Heidegger
maintains that it is these philosophical frameworks
themselves that are the source of traditional
philosophical problems (Heidegger 1996, Guignon,
Heidegger devoted a lot of time to the idea of
“being-with”, and talking and communicating was
one way to be with others: «Discoursing or talking is
the way we articulate “significantly” the
intelligibility of being-in-the-world.” (Heidegger,
1996). Discourse, for Heidegger, is broader than
talk, including all our inner and outer expression
which plays the same role as talking. According to
Guignon (1983), in Heidegger’s perspective, talk
and discourse «do not have the purpose of
transmitting messages of information, are not ways
of getting things we want more efficiently, and do
not give expression to “me-I”» (Guignon, 1983).
Rather, talk and discourse have the purpose of
finding significance and of sharing understanding,
and give expression to human being-in-the-world
(Guignon, 1983).
Heidegger (1996) refers to discursiveness,
situatedness and understanding as the basic
elements of rationalisation, i.e. how human beings
spontaneously use their rationality in everyday
situations, therefore including philosophical and
scientific reasoning circumstances as special cases
within this everyday use (Guignon, 1983).
Heidegger’s ontology is profoundly marked by this
common use of rationalisation processes.
«If we are to understand the full import of
Heidegger’s conception of ‘meaning’, then, we must
avoid seeing it as referring to something inner in any
sense... Heidegger identifies three existentialia of
what is called ‘Being-in as such’: situatedness,
understanding, and discursiveness.... Meaning is that
which makes possible that projection of possibilities
in understanding... What is the source of this most
primordial level of intelligibility? Heidegger says
that it is ‘discursiveness’. The concepts of
‘discursiveness’ and ‘meaning’ are closely related,
so to clarify one is at the same time to illuminate the
other.» (Guignon, 1983).
Heidegger’s concepts allow for a rich
interpretation of the critical role of community life
for human beings’ organisation within a society, a
culture and a civilisation (Guignon, 1983). Life in
the knowledge economy of the information age
(Castells, 1998) continues to be grounded in the
same network of communities, and of social and
cultural embedded meaning creation processes.
Heidegger sees the world as expressing the aims and
interests of a culture (Guignon, 1983). This implies
that the concepts of “discursiveness” and of
“meaning” are closely related (Heidegger, 1996).
Social subjectivity becomes a central concept:
«To be Dasein is essentially to be a nexus of the
socially constituted relations of a culture...
Heidegger’s phenomenology of everydayness works
to counteract the tendency toward the displacement
of meaning into subjectivity which began with the
rise of modern science.» (Guignon, 1983).
Outside the academic discipline of philosophy there
is a growing interest in the kind of ontological
approach to human phenomena that Heidegger
helped to establish and to define in its modern form.
According to Guignon (1983), the works of post-
structuralists thinkers such as Derrida and Foucault
may be understood as responses to Heideggerian
philosophy. Heidegger’s work was a critique to
traditional epistemology, and his thought provides a
key that opens up a wide range of problems and
presuppositions built into the Cartesian tradition.
Heidegger’s method breaks with traditional
philosophy to the extent that it is concerned less with
discovering obvious truths and providing proofs than
with unearthing the underlying meaning in what is
manifest in our normal lives.
K. Jaspers philosophy followed Heidegger’s
ideas and argued that only in “communication”
could man “become himself” (Young-Bruehl, 1981).
J. Habermas’ (1984) theory of communicative action
is also deeply rooted in Heidegger’s work. For
Habermas, to become more modern means to
become more rational. He stresses that
communicative rationality is about the achievement
ICEIS 2007 - International Conference on Enterprise Information Systems
of shared understandings through language and other
means of communication, and it is about being open
to criticism, and able to give good reasons for our
own beliefs, decisions and actions (Habermass,
R. Rorty (1979), an American philosopher of the
analytic tradition and a postmodernist, considers
Heidegger, together with Wittgenstein and Dewey,
the three most important philosophers of the
twentieth century. Heidegger’s (1996) ontology has
influenced both organisational learning studies,
through the works of authors who explicitly focused
on social perspectives on learning (eg. Cook,
Yanow, 1993, Gherardi, Nicolini, 2001, Elkjaer,
2003) and computing science research, namely
through the works of Maturana and Varela (1980)
and Winograd and Flores (1986).
Heidegger’s work Being and Time (1996)
influenced Maturana and Varela’s work (1980) and
through them the work of Winograd and Flores
(1986), thus setting a tradition in computing science
and information systems design. Against a Cartesian
view of human beings as purely autonomous and
rational, perfectly in control of their consciousness,
Heidegger’s perspective on “situatedness” calls upon
the importance of human’s relationships with our
world and our surrounding environment. From this
perspective, information systems designers may
acknowledge the importance of their influence on
work systems and, through these systems, their
influence on the individual and the collective users
of the system.
Winograd and Flores (1986), following
Maturana and Varela’s work, explicitly refer to the
influence of Heidegger’s Being and Time (1996). Of
“comprehension that takes place in situations of
involvement in a practice when subject and object
are not separated” (Gherardi, Nicolini, 2001). They
explain their rationale the following way:
«All new technologies develop within a background
of a tacit understanding of human nature and human
work. The use of technology in turn leads to
fundamental changes in what we do, and ultimately
in what it is to be human. We encounter the deep
questions of design when we recognise that in
designing tools we are designing ways of being. By
confronting these questions directly, we can develop
a new background for understanding computer
technology – one that can lead to important
advances in the design and use of computer
systems.» (Winograd, Flores, 1986).
Through Heidegger’s being-in-the-world, it is
possible to promote and raise the awareness towards
the relatedness and sociality of human intellectual
The complexity of current organisational contexts
forces researchers and practitioners to explore new
boundaries and knowledge domains. Socio-
philosophy is critical if there is the recognition of the
central role of social and cultural factors in
determining informal organisational practices.
Information systems design has developed pioneer
work related with Heidegger’s ontology, and it is
crucial that this achievement is recognised,
disseminated and further developed.
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