Category Archives: knowledge management

Why reflect? Managing without foundations

There is a struggle going on in the UK at the moment between the talking therapies, counselling, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis and the government. The government would like to regulate those offering therapy and get them to become members of the Health Professions Council, the main regulatory body of all health professionals except doctors and nurses, who have regulatory bodies of their own. The government’s preferred intervention for the public’s mental health is cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT, which as the name suggests is based in behaviourist theories of human action. The effectiveness of CBT is more demonstrable and therefore more scientific, the government would claim, because changes in behaviour are observable, and therefore measurable. In order to regulate the talking therapies the governement has produced draft legislation which describes some hundreds of rules which an encounter between those seeking therapy and those offering it would be required to meet. Without such explicit rules and standards, the government would argue, there is no way of objectively regulating what is going on.

Supporters of the talking therapies have responded with indignation. Their arguments are that the encounter between therapist and those seeking therapy is an improvisational and exploratory conversation, the outcome of which is not specifiable in advance. The therapeutic relationship is not necessarily a problem-solving relationship: it may not primarily be about trying to stop smoking, or having panic attacks in public, but it is a relational journey of joint discovery, although ‘problems’ might be ‘solved’ along the way. Exploration may simply lead to more exploration, questioning to more questioning. The ‘outcome’ will arise out of the quality of the relationship of those embarking together on the conversation.

The arguments for  talking therapies and what they might mean for human development and learning are similar to some of the arguments for reflective and reflexive practice that I have been setting out in this blog, arguments which can sometimes be reduced and made simplistic. For example, recently the Broker online magazine summed up a paper I had written by putting forward the idea that my conclusion was simply to recommend reflection, reflection, reflection. But why reflect, and what kind of working method does it imply? To make sense, reflection requires a little more reflection itself.

Reflection in the professional domain is not directly intended to give rise to therapeutic outcomes, although this is not to say that these do not sometimes happen. The case for it is similar to that being made by supporters of the talking therapies in the UK, however, that is intended to be open ended, improvisational and undertaken with no particular end in view. In this sense, unlike most management methods which are taken up in organisations, it does not aim for optimisation: there is no abstract quest for the ideal system, or ways of working based in ‘best practice’. There is no ‘broken society’ waiting to be fixed, as the leader of the opposition in the UK would have it. Reflection dwells upon lived experience with the intention of intensifying it, and in doing so the reflector can sometimes come to understand themselves and their relationships anew: they become reflexive. The kind of knowledge that is most likely to arise from reflective practice, both individual and collective, is self-knowledge, rather than the instrumentalised understanding that one can sometimes derive from knowledge-oriented writing that somehow all knowledge is action or problem-oriented.

Reflection is not necessarily inclined towards answers, solutions and conclusions, but rather to doubt, questioning and uncertainty. This is in no way a despairing uncertainty however, simply one which implies further openness to experience. It assumes that things are mutable, ever-changing, without permanent foundations. In this sense there is a profound discipline here, and a dialectical method of never being satisfied with answers that would close off further questioning. Being open to new collective meaning-making  is a recognition of our inter-dependence and the otherness of others. In reflecting with others we are using our conscious and self-conscious capacity which is what most distinguishes us as being human, our ability as GH Mead said, to take ourselves as an object to ourselves.

Reflective and reflexive practice will incline us towards doubting the very instruments of management that have become so ubiquitous in organisations that we have come to take them for granted. In order to respond to the new and the unexpected, our inevitably changing circumstances, we may want to explore instead managing without foundations.

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Embodied knowledge

The idea of the rational actor is dominant in most economic theory, and presupposes an actor acting freely, consciously and with full understanding. Much that is written about information and knowledge is done so from a similar perspective of presumed rational calculation, that every action is preceded by a premeditated and explicit plan. Thus it is that Peter Senge can talk about surfacing, and changing, our ‘mental models’, as though we can assume full detachment from and control over the way we see the world. This presupposition also underpins the idea that we can make our tacit knowledge explicit and so capitalise on, or ‘leverage’ our locked up understanding.

The sociologist Bourdieu had a very different understanding of how we make our way in the world and how broad social patterning arises. He undermines the sovereignty of the rational actor to describe, and dispose of her world. He argues instead that most of our understanding is prereflected, embodied and unconscious. The body is like a ‘memory pad’ imprinted with affective encounters with social structures and the environment, which become naturalised into absorbed dispositions to behave in a particular way. Our habitus, the feel for the social game that we are playing, allows us to find our place without having to deliberate. We are able to hit the nail on the head, to perform with others in our social interactions, often without having to calculate what the right answer is, or to follow an explicit succession of rules.

For Bourdieu, this is not just bodily knowledge, but social knowledge as well, given that it finds expression through the explicit collusion among all actors who are the products of similar conditions. These actors are attuned to each other in a collective performance. He argues against the idea of the individual actor making sequential isolated, calculations on her own to decide what to do next. There is a practical understanding between people playing on the same team, or at least when there is greater antagonism, between players playing the same game, where there is often no explicit attempt at rational co-ordination.

Bourdieu’s bodily, social knowledge operates in the realm of paradox, since it is informed by the history of practice that precedes it and the objective structures in which it finds itself operating. And at the same time it helps to create these structures by helping decide what needs to be done, or not done as the game unfolds. The habitus, the ingrained disposition to behave in a particular way, is both structured by, and structures, objective social relations. It is neither deterministic, nor is it individualised: a disposition does not lead to a determinate action, but is revealed and fulfilled only in appropriate circumstances and in the relationship with a particular situation.

If habitus is the feel for the game, then the field is the particular game that we find ourselves playing: it might be international development, education or academia. The way the game unfolds will depend upon the particular feel for the game of each of the different actors, their social capital in relation to each other, and the way that opportunities present themselves and are understood by the cooperating and competing players. The way that we interpret the social world, our cognitive schemes, are also a product of history. When we play the game we are often so absorbed in it that we have no choice but to improve our position in it, and by doing so, perpetuate the game itself.

The social is instituted in biological individuals, and in each individual there is an incorporation of the social. The habitus can be understood as an individual, socialised body, or as the social, biologically individuated in various bodies. It is for this reason that habitus can be constructed in classes which are statistically characterised.

If we accept that much of our behaviour is informed by an absorbed, profoundly social, embodied knowledge which is largely unreflected, it makes the idea of ‘making the tacit explicit’ much more problematic than is usually presented. We cannot fully, or always consciously do so since we can never be completely aware of what we take for granted. Reflection and reflexivity are hard to achieve, and often occur in the interstices between expectation and actuality, between our anticipation of the game and what actually transpires. How we might learn better to reflect on disruptions to the game will be the subject of future postings.

Different theories of knowledge

There have been a number of postings on the Giraffe blog, a blog of one of the working groups of the Information and Knowledge Management Emergent (IKME) project which struggle to come to grips with what we might mean by ‘knowledge management’. In some of the postings, authors draw on management theorists, describing them as ‘gurus’, in order better to understand what it is they are dealing with. In doing so, however, there is no attempt also to draw attention to the theoretical assumptions of these ‘gurus’, or probe how their conceptual schemes give rise to and shape their recommendations.

So it is a broadly taken for granted assumption in many of the postings that there is a difference between information and knowledge, that knowledge can be managed or even ‘leveraged’, and even a suggestion that it is possible to put a monetary value on making tacit knowledge explicit (drawing on Michael Polanyi’s ideas of tacit and explicit knowledge).

Many management theorists write from a position that might be called extractive: in other words, their explicit intention is to instrumentalise human interaction for the good of the company, to bring about better performance or enhance efficiency, and to help managers with tools and techniques for doing the same. In doing so they privilege a certain understanding of scientific method, assuming that methods which are so powerful when used in the natural world are equally applicable in the social world. This can lead to considering knowledge to be a ‘product’, a tangible and fixed commodity which can be ‘captured’ and utilised unproblematically by others.

When staff in not-for-profits which have an explicit moral purpose of doing good with and on behalf of others borrow from intellectual traditions which are extractive in this way, it might be worth pausing to reflect a while on whether the methods these traditions recommend help achieve the ends that they seek. Methods are constitutive of ends: in other words, the way that you work directly affects social outcomes. It is worth pausing to consider to what extent extracting knowledge products from the objects of our humanitarian intentions begins to undermine those very intentions.

In this and subsequent postings I will explore different ways of understanding how knowledge arises in order to set out a more social understanding of knowledge, one which arises in social processes of interaction and power relating. Rather than construing knowledge as something that is fixed and unchanging and something separate from the people among whom knowledge arises, I will explore theories that privilege the social, dynamic and contingent nature of knowledge.

The hermeneutic philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer makes the case that scientific enquiry always tries to make knowledge an end itself, it is teleologically driven, and as such creates ‘an illusion of experience perfected and replaced by knowledge’. By doing this, Gadamer argues, it robs human experience of much of its value, which is to be found in its historicity and the process of dialectic. The idea of scientific enquiry is to create universal and timeless products that enable us to predict and control nature. In contrast, Gadamer idealises not the product but the process of enquiry; to be experienced, he argues, means that one is open to more experience. He draws attention to conversation, and latterly the conversation with a text, with the aim of pointing to the Socratic process of questioning, the opening up to otherness, to the dialectic of negation, that is not about being in control but about being increasingly undogmatic and questioning further:

‘The art of questioning is the art of questioning further . i.e., the art of thinking. It is called dialectic because it is the art of conducting a real dialogue. .To conduct a conversation means to allow oneself to be conducted by the subject matter to which the partners in the dialogue are oriented. As against the fixity of opinions, questioning makes the objects and all its possibilities fluid. A person skilled in the art of questioning is a person who can prevent questions from being suppressed by the dominant opinion.’ (Truth and Method, 1993: 360/361)

This is not to say that Gadamer is uninterested in truth, merely that he is less interested in truth as a fixed product rather than the truth that is manifest in an ongoing cycle of enquiry. Drawing on Socrates and Hegel, he believes that knowledge arises in the process of question and answer in a way that is driven by the movement between engaged discussants.

This is a very different understanding from considering knowledge to be a ‘product’ which can be ‘leveraged’. Rather, for Gadamer it is a process of social engagement through which we better understand ourselves through our encounter with others. Knowledge in this sense, is an expanding knowledge of the self.