A Neo-Socratic Model for Learning and for System Development

Roland Ekinge, Whirlpool Sweden AB.

Bengt Lennartsson, Linköpings Universitet.

Traditionally in industrial system devevelopment, the total project is decomposed into phases. The result from one phase is a deliverable, normally a document, passed to the phase(s) to follow. The contents of the "phases" and the format of the documents are prescribed in standards or corporate guidelines.

This metaphor, where knowledge or understanding are packaged into documents, has been used for our educational systems as well as for organising engineering or social development projects. It is assumed that the understanding once achieved by the author(s) of the document will be transferred to the reader(s).

Today, this traditional model is no longer appropriate for several reasons:

  1. Writing and reading contexts differ.

a) Initial planning is no longer valid during execution. In a study at Ericsson about 50% of the functions considered necessary initially were cancelled during execution, and 30% of the functions included in the release were not even considered when the project started.

b) The implicit and assumed context information is not shared, as the development organization as well as the user community normally is distributed globally. Values and behavior patterns differ due to cultural, and national backgrounds. Even the most basic concepts are interpreted differently.

2. The total complexity of the problem. Contributions from experts of many different disciplines and backgrounds are needed to find answers to all questions.

Our studies have inspired us to look for a new development model, where we define understanding as the capability to create answers to new questions. This is quite different from the traditional declarative view of knowledge: ability to reproduce and render material from literature.

We are aiming at defining a development (or learning) model based upon developing and making available shared understanding. The task may include production of documents, but the rational is to force the team to sharpen the shared understanding, rather than to deliver it as such in documents. How can we prevent the heads of the team members from beeing blocked by the past? We beleive that all real learning is inductive and not deductive. This is one creative conflict we work with in our project.

Figure 1: The document is just a means for the development of the understanding of the team. It has the same catalytic effect as has the written exam for the undergraduate student, or the thesis for the graduate. The main result is the understanding in the head of the person, and not the mere text on the paper.


This view of learning and knowledge has implications on how to design education. Focus on context dependent understanding, and capability to act, rather than on ability just to relate contents of textbooks. Learning how to learn is what counts. Socrates did not believe in delivery of understanding by means of written text. He saw a written document as a block for thinking. Only in dialoques between people real understanding can be developed.

One approach we persue is based on Popper’s critical rationalism. Strict implementation would mean that traditional development models must be changed radically. The leadership must be Socratic, dialoques must replace discussions, engineers must be willing and able to describe their work, and appreciate critical questions.

Popper’s third world, with many similarities with Platons world, plays a key role in our work. As does the interrelationship between this world and the other two, the psycological and the real ones.


Karl R Popper: Conjectures and refutations : the growth of scientific knowledge. Lonon 1972. ISBN 0710065086.

Karl Popper: Objective knowledge : an evolutionary approach. Oxford , 1972. ISBN 0198750242.

A Coversation with Austin Henderson. Interviewed by Kate Ehrlich. Interactions. Vol.6, Nov.-Dec. 1998. pp36.-47.

Lars Taxen, Even-Andre Karlsson: Incremental Development for AXE 10. Ericsson Conference on Software Engineering, Frankfurt 4-5 juni 98.

Kristina Davidson, Bengt Lennartsson: Team Learning Capability - A Strategy to Master Complexity and to Achieve Flexibility. Proceedings of The 7th World Conference on Continuing Engineering Education, Torino, Italy, May 1998.

Bengt Lennartsson: Why there are different teaching preferences in different disciplines. Proceedings of The International Conference on Project Work in University Studies, Roskilde, Denmark, September 14-17, 1997.