Five Collaboration Principles from Epistemology

After reading my last blog on critical thinking to pump up the value of collaboration (see, my Pastor, the Reverend Dr. Donn Ed, asked if scientists learn the principles of epistemology. This is a simple, yet profound, question. Since I am a trained chemical engineer and had to look up what epistemology even is, then I suspect that most scientists are not formally trained in epistemology. Thus began my intellectual journey into the world of philosophy. Please be forewarned that I am new to philosophy with no formal training and would appreciate very much learning from others more knowledable on this topic.

In my whirlwind, on-line, philosophy study tour, I learned that epistemology is one of five branches of philosophy, the other four include metaphysics or the study of existence, ethics or the study of right and wrong, politics or the study of ethics applied to a group of people, and aesthetics or the study of art (see The word ‘philosophy’ comes from the Greek word ‘philosophia’ which means ‘love of wisdom.’ Philosophy as an academic discipline is ‘the study of the principles underlying conduct, thought, and knowledge’ (see Epistemology, within the academic discipline of philosophy, is the study of acquiring knowledge. Knowledge, according to epistemology, is an understanding of the facts of reality.

Knowledge is also important to collaboration. For example, collaboration starts with a shared understanding by participants of the knowledge relevant to the topic. Futhermore, in collaboration, new concepts are generated and evaluated as ways to address a defined goal. It stands to reason that epistemology would provide principles for how to most effectively generate and evaluate these new concepts. My intellectual journey of epistemology uncovered five collaboration principles.

The first collaboration principle from epistemology is words alone are insufficient to communicate concepts. Epistemology teaches that words are symbols of concepts (see Words by themselves are meaningless and arbitrary. In fact, a word is only meaningful if it has a concept and a definition with the necessary context for an individual to understand the concept. The primary purpose of words is to build concepts. However, words alone do not lead to understanding. The learning from this principle is that the key concepts generated during a collaboration need to be tested for understanding with the concept-generator. Specifically, the following questions need to be addressed for each key concept generated in a collaboration: Who needs to understand these concepts who is not participating in this meeting? If we showed these concepts to these people ‘as is,’ then would they understand them? If not, then what do we need to do to address this?

The second collaboration principle from epistemology is the nature of emotions. Epistemology teaches that only understanding can trigger emotion, however, this understanding is based on a previous value judgment that may or may not be relevant to the current situation (see Emotions are a reflection of our unarticulated values and therefore must be respected during collaboration; a professional facilitator is trained to do this (see However, emotions can also be faulty so while respecting the emotion, the emotion must be evaluated with reason to test if it is appropriate to the situation at hand. The learning from this principle is to identify emotions expressed by collaboration participants and use questioning to assess if the emotion is reasonable and relevant to the collaboration topic to inform next steps. For example, if the emotion is based on an understanding that is faulty or not relevant to the collaboration objective, then the collaboration leader can capture the topic to address outside the collaboration. Similarly, if the emotion is based on an understanding that is reasonable and relevant to the collaboration objective, then the collaboration leader can acknowledge and, if needed, call for a break to decide with the sponsor of the collaboration session how to best address.

The third collaboration principle from epistemology is the art of engaging people. This principle is based on the idea from epistemology that knowledge is acquired by proper evaluation of perceptions and perceptions, in turn, result from the automatic processing of inputs to our brains (see Collaboration calls on participants to go beyond perception, which is not a form of thinking, to doing the brain work required to address a specified objective. Richard Kasschau in his book Pyschology: Exploring Behavior (see discusses the factors that get our attention for processing perceptions. Kasschau identifies the experience and interests of the perceiver, the nature of the stimulus, and the nature of the perceiver as the key factors influencing our attention to processing perceptions. These factors can be addressed in a collaboration event. For example, the collaboration leader can show the intersection between the event and the experiences and interests of participants as a way to get participants interested and engaged. In addition, the collaboration leader can customize the collaboration process to be compelling for participants. While the collaboration leader cannot influence the nature of the participants involved, he/she can lean towards selecting participants who are most likely to engage in a value-producing way and help mitigate the resulting diversity through carefully constructed groups and well-honed facilitation skills. The learning from this principle is to pay attention to the interests, experiences, and nature of participants in order to design a collaboration session that will solicit their willing engagement.

The fourth collaboration principle from epistemology is effective concept generation. Epistemology teaches that concepts are the result of combining information and ideas and are best articulated by describing the basis for the combination as well as how the concept is different from other similar concepts (see The learning from this principle is to insure that it is easy to discern examples of what the concepts generated are and are not. If this is not the case, then the collaboration leader needs to ask the concept generator for examples of what the concept is and is not at the time of generation.

The fifth and final collaboration principle from epistemology is that the purpose of focusing is to generate knowledge. Epistemology teaches that reason is the process of thinking that leads to knowledge from one’s perceptions (see A staple of a good collaboration session, is the ‘heartbeat’ of creative problem solving (see The ‘heartbeat’ is a dynamic balance between generating which calls upon divergent thinking and focusing which calls upon convergent thinking. Thinking, or reason, plays a role in both generating and focusing. Thinking during generating is about stretching one’s mind to force connections between the problem statement and a vast array of stimuli and perceptions and calls for deferred judgment. Thinking during focusing is about assessing the validity of different concepts and calls for affirmative judgment. The learning from this principle is that if the type of knowledge that needs to be generated by a collaboration session can be articulated, then it might be possible to identify a relevant framework for acquiring that knowledge. Such a framework would not only help with following this fifth principle, but would also help with following the first, third, and fourth principles. An example of a framework for acquiring knowledge is the scientific method shown in the figure (see

Scientific Method 2013 ScienceBuddies

Framework for Scientific Method from Science Buddies, 2013

Collaboration cannot happen effectively without a shared understanding of what knowledge exists and what knowledge needs to be generated in order to address a specified challenge. Epistemology uncovers the fundamentals of acquiring knowledge. Epistemology points to the importance of addressing the limitation of words, the challenges of emotion, the need to proactively engage participants, the characteristics of a well-articulated concept, and the use of focusing to generate knowledge in order to excel in collaboration. If you would like to learn more about how to increase your organization’s capacity for effective and value-producing collaboration to address your toughest challenges, contact Valerie Patrick at Fulcrum Connection LLC (412-742-9675 or