On my earlier post on the definition of a knowledge worker, Michael Domsalla of IT Frontal commented. As I was writing my response it turned out longer than anticipated, so I turned into a new blogpost (in stead of trying keep my writing in check.
Michael says: first: one of the major problems in KM is that many people try to define “Knowledge” _and_ “Management” in the meaning of the word what makes absolutely no sense. You can not manage knowledge.
I agree the term knowledge management isn’t very useful (although it contains a vital clue as to how people tend to think of knowledge: as objects)
Michael says: second: there are some common understandings in companies what a knowledge worker is. I found this understanding in many companies and it is a stupid but easy way to handle things, so third: a knowledge manager is someone who works in the KM dept. and he is doing knowledge work. (but what we really talk about is an information worker)
I think that is an extremely narrow view of knowledge work, as it presupposes a km department (which are rare outside large corporations) and thus implicitly assumes knowledge work only takes place in organisations, and also implies that (un)learning etc. are not knowledge work. By defining it this narrow the term becomes useless in much the same way when we deem all work knowledge work. Also it seems to be a circular definition defining a knowledge worker as someone in the km dept doing knowledge work. Begs the question what knowledge work is, which is the original question in a slightly different form.
Michael says: So thats a practical way to see it, but before you try to define a _knowledge_ worker in an academic way you should start to define knowledge. good luck 😉
Well, I think it is not a very practical way to see it, as it is of the type “the world stands on the back of an elephant, who stands on a turtoise, who stands on another turtoise…….” to explain how the world is kept upright in space. It only moves the problem one step along and makes KM into a religion of sorts. 🙂 I think the vital problem with this approach is the same problem which is contained in the term knowledge management: treating knowledge as an object. When treated as object, indeed it serves us more to speak of information and information management. That is what to me is wrong with thinking in chains like data, information, knowledge and wisdom.
It amounts to ignoring creativity, innovation, and ingenuity and assumes knowledge can be objectively approached without considering context. That to me is what is wrong about “best practices” for instance. It is like treating a human being as a body only, and ignoring that there is a “ghost in the machine” so to speak, that a human is an active agent and not an innate object only.
Denham Grey hammers on the notion that knowledge is socially constructed and that therefore relationships, networks and discourse are the thing to focus on. That is treating knowledge as a flow only in my eyes. It does take into account the subjectivity of knowledge and it’s context interdependency, but it leaves out that to us knowledge does have object properties. I think of specific bodies of knowledge as residing in me, as blocks that are stored in me. Even though these blocks are woven into a net of information, experiences, skills and attititudes (all connected to the outside), from which it is impossible to extract it intact. (as it would destroy the internal context, and as a result the external context from which it stems)
It also leaves out that within the social network where knowledge is formed and reformed not all parts of the network are equal in an individual’s eyes. There is a marked difference in me and the rest: I am me. So while I no longer subscribe to Descartes distinction between body and spirit as two different things (and hence put my mention of the ghost in the machine in quotes just now), I do think his basic premise Cogito ergo sum is important. I am the center of my world, and I know myself in another way than I know the others in my social network. This inequality disappears if you aggregate over a social network, as everybody is in the same situation, but it is distinctively important if you’re in the network. While the network keeps me functional, I do not cease to exist nor become a blank slate when I am not part of that network. I will be much the poorer for it, but not broke. To say otherwise I think is treating me as an object as the way to stop treating knowledge as an object. It is replacing one subject-object relationship for another, where we probably should be talking about subject-subject relationships. That is why I think talking about personal knowledge management is a viable way to better understanding knowledge work. To me that does not preclude nor deny knowledge as a social construct.
So both approaches leave stuff out is my feeling. That’s why I like Mick Cope ‘s approach of knowledge as a stock and flow system (which also ties it in nicely with system dynamics and complexity)
I agree with you that knowledge cannot be managed, managers should manage organisations (although they could do a lot better with rethinking their 150 yr old industrial approach to what organisations are.) But to conclude that therefore all KM is really IM, to me is solving the question by saying it isn’t there and not accepting indications that there might be more to it. (Killing the monster) It leaves the assumption that knowledge is an object only intact and unchallenged. We need to take knowledge as a social construct into account. That is what makes knowledge distinguishable from information, that it is a belief and value-system entangled in a web of context (persons, information, relationships etc.) “True knowledge” exists only temporarily as it is consensus-built, and context-dependant (as the map is not the terrain). Thus it limits the shelf life of knowledge-stock and introduces the dynamics of knowledge-flow.
The stock and flow combination approach of knowledge is reflected nicely in what Karl Sveiby uses as a definition of knowledge: “Knowledge is the ability to act”. In both the words ability and act, I can see both the individual and her surroundings, both stock and flow incorporated. To me that looks like a useful definition to start with, although refining our understanding of knowledge work and dito workers will alter the definition probably. (defining something is building knowledge, and knowledge creation is a social and iterative process) Your statement before you try to define a _knowledge_ worker in an academic way you should start to define knowledge implies a hierarchical chain of concepts, where I see a interdependency, as you might have guessed from previous paragraphs and lines.
(fourth: if you.re able to understand german, why dont you write your comment in german ;-)? (as IT Frontal is a german blog [and i was not sure too if i should cite your blog in german or english…? ;-)])
Well that is a funny and peculiar thing. I tend to assign languages to conversations I have. The topic of knowledge work has come up this time in English and so all the terminology and associations I have are in English. It would have broken my stream of thought to comment in German. This has strange effects. For instance when I e-mail with Martin Roell, our business conversations are in English, interspersed with personal talk in German.

2 reactions on “Defining the Knowledge Worker II

  1. Ah! finding the balance between flow and objects is the sweet spot.
    I think a ‘personal knowledge’ focus misses the target – too much me – branding – identity stuff that gets in the way.
    What we all need to do is to find the community and build the trust / relationships that allow critical, ephemeral, emergence, that provides the leverage to learn and cultivates awareness.
    Mick Cope is too much about personal effectiveness, building brands and working with information / k-assets. A balance requires more focus on sharing, social capital, helping others learn and contributing to dialog. The best way to build your knowledge is to contribute and support others in an inquiry.

  2. Oh no, it’s the return of the 2×2 matrix

    The boston sq 2×2 matrix has become a lazy way of representing the fact that anything you want to think about in your organisation has (at least) two dimensions. I don’t think they’re big and I don’t think they’re…

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