Epistemology – the foundation for, well, everything!

Epistemology – no, it’s not a swear word, but rather the foundation of, well everything we know, but for me, that means talent management.

Let me ask you – How do you know what you know? What does it mean to “know”?

Academics, in our role as knowledge creators and disseminators, are well-versed in discussions about philosophies of science because the foundations of social research require declarations about our research questions.  With a research question to hand – like, How is talent defined in organisations? – we then need to declare:

  • How did we examine our research question?
  • How will we endeavour to answer our question?
  • How will we know when we have an answer to our question?
  • How do we create knowledge about or beyond our research question?

This is where epistemology comes into play.

Epistemology provides a framework to examine how we know what we know, and therefore, how we create knowledge. How do you decide what’s “true” and what’s not?

More specifically, epistemology is the theory of knowledge embedded in the theoretical perspective of the author/s. It involves acknowledging and describing how one looks at the world and how one makes sense of it. Maynard (1994:10) notes that ‘Epistemology is concerned with providing a philosophical grounding for deciding what kinds of knowledge are possible and how we can ensure that they are both adequate and legitimate’.

When teaching students about the importance of philosophy, I suggest three main ways to frame what knowledge is, and how knowledge is created: objectivism/positivism; constructionism; and interpretivism (yes, I agree there are many more than these three). Like a bunch of my students, your first reaction may be – that’s all well and good for academics, but why does it matter to me?

Here’s why: your individual perceptions about knowledge influence what you think and do, both in and out of the workplace. Put in academic-speak, individuals with differing epistemologies understand the world differently, and have differing perspectives of how knowledge should be produced.

Importantly for this conversation, that means we each have different views of the world, and these individual views influence how we talk about what talent is, and what it is not.

Not sure which one you are?  Here’s a quick (and very superficial) test. Do you think that:

A. There’s one objective reality, where the world and what’s “real” is singular and separate from each individual’s consciousness.

B. Individuals, in collaboration with those around them, mutually create an understanding of reality.

C. Social reality and our understanding of the world is based on an individual’s interpretation of the environment and interactions.

Answering this question, most of us naturally gravitated to one option, our intuitive view of the world.  Here are the headlines of what that may mean for your way of seeing talent management.

Option A (positivism) assumes that knowledge is objective. That is, there is only one “truth” about phenomena and that truth can be objectively identified and measured. Reality exists apart from the operation of any consciousness. Borrowing an example from Crotty (1998:8) a tree in the forest is a tree, regardless of whether any one is aware of existence or not. The truth is out there (imagine the X Files TV show’s theme statement). One just needs to find (discover) it.  So, in simplistic terms, there is both a completely objective slot vacant, and a perfect person for the job vacancy, so our purpose is to locate them.

Options B and C are somewhat related, but both bear an antagonistic relationship with A: social constructionism and interpretivism assert that phenomena are subjective and the knowledge creation process involves numerous stakeholders. These stakeholders and social citizens help to “construct” or “interpret” knowledge: there is no objective truth for us to discover and uncover – so there is no one answer to what exactly is the best definition of the vacancy or who may be an ideal candidate to fill it.

These approaches emphasise that, as individuals, we are not separate from our consciousness and it is within our minds that we begin to create knowledge and form meanings. When talking about trees, social constructionists and interpretivists would ask – what makes an object (a material thing) a tree? How do we know that what we are examining is a “tree”? On what criteria or knowledge do we decide to refer to something as a “tree”? Again with the simplistic terms, our first job is to agree what the vacancy looks like, and options there might be to fill it, then seek for that filling.

For the purposes of full disclosure and knowledge sharing – my natural inclination is to B. I identify as a social constructionist (this may retrospectively help explain the selection of an undergraduate sociology major): I believe that the world I experience every day is not a given; instead it is an extension of my consciousness and my experience of the world is subjective; therefore, I see and experience the world differently to others.

This personal perspective influences how I view the world – but, pretty obviously, it also affects how I see talent management and how I endeavour to create knowledge about what “talent” and “talent management” are.

Just keep in mind … nothing I’ve said in this post infers or suggests that one epistomology is better than another. Epistomology is not a zero-sum game.  My point is that I am excited to share additional perspectives on how philosophy influences our work together as we talk more about talent, and a key takeaway from this post concerns the importance of reflecting on personal epistemologies because these influence how we know what we know about talent management – AND everything else.

Twitter tip – Follow Natalie Hardwicke @NatHardwicke and Existential Comics via @existentialcoms for daily thoughts about the wide-ranging implications about philosophy. I do.

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