what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Managing knowledge

A colleague sent me recently some diagrams about knowledge management – which prompted some musings about a term which has never been an inviting one for me. When so much institutional knowledge has been lost by peremptory sackings and downsizings in the past decade and more, how can anyone take seriously an interest/discipline for the retention and management of knowledge? Or was KM indeed brought into being precisely because such losses of personnel were anticipated? And how does KM relate to the previously fashionable "organisational learning" – and the writers associated with that eg Peter Senge let alone the less celebrated Reg Revans and his "action learning"?
What precisely have we gained through use of the latest term? I could relate to the previous terms – but find "knowledge management” pretentious (in its reification of knowledge, implication that organisations can capture it) and offensive (in its apparent emphasis on systems rather than people). Perhaps it’s just me and my anarchistic leanings – I have never really properly belonged to an organisation although, when a senior politicians, I did organise a variety of forums which brought people together who did not normally rub shoulders with one another. And, as my website and blog demonstrate, I am very committed to sharing knowledge and experiences. I belong to that generation which does not see it as a private resource. But Knowledge Management, as I understand the subject, springs from the recognition that the skills and knowledge of an organisation’s staff are, potentially, the distinctive advantage it has these days which can pull in the profit. If only, that is, it can identify the winning formula and ensure it is applied appropriately elsewhere in the organisation. But all of this implies and requires trust – and this is the one thing which the management of modern organisations has succeeded in destroying.
Of course, many non-profit bodies, not least in the development field such as The World Bank, see themselves as knowledge hubs and have published useful stuff about how to collect, access and use appropriate lessons from practice. One recent (and rather simplistic example) example was from the World Bank Institute and, some years ago, the ODI did a very useful literature review.

But I still feel that the field itself deserves the sort of ridicule which , by serendipidity, another blogger heaped on management fads -
Until five years ago, I'd never heard of brand wheels. I'd chosen the relative penury of bookselling so that I would never have to sit in boardrooms, having serious conversations about things that didn't matter. It was an unspoken agreement. Then HMV bought the company I worked for and suddenly books were called 'product', knowledge became 'learnings' and the staff were called 'resource' (always singular, I noticed). The agreement had been broken. It was a horrible time.
One day I was invited to a regional meeting and an ambitious young manager revealed a diagram of a thing called a 'brand wheel'. It consisted of various segments that represented different aspects of running a bookshop. Things so painfully obvious that it seemed unnecessary to write them down.
There were lots of words like knowledge (not 'learnings', on this occasion), authority, communication, enthusiasm and development. There was a reductive quality about the brand wheel that smacked of totalitarianism (I'm sure that Stalin would have had one if he'd known about them): this is who we are, this is what we think and this is what we must do.
And my prejudices were reinforced when I glanced at the many volumes of text of the incredible project which has just tried to diagnose the state of the "knowledge sector" in Indonesia - and also by this 2002 article - The Nonsenseof knowledge management.


And, if you’re wondering why I’ve not said anything about the change of Romanian government which we have been experiencing this week, it’s simply because other people are saying it much better than me. See Sara’s blogposts since 6 February

The painting is a Josef Iser (1881-1958) - probably at the Hippidrome of his home town Ploiesti and one of whose paintings was available, at a private gallery I visited yesterday, for 15,000 euros. It's the Ana gallery which has a great collection of paintings -most however piled inaccessibly against the walls - and managed by a dour woman who follows you round and names the authors of each work you touch regardless of the interest you show. Very depressing. 

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