Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Aid is a knowledge industry?

picture: Mariette Heres
In the Broker you can find an article called Aid is a knowledge industry in which Mariette Heres argues that "although NGOs are taking more interest in knowledge management, they have so far failed to recognize that they are part of a knowledge industry, of which the delivery of goods and services is only a part."

I think it is interesting to put up such a statement, which makes people think. Unfortunately she does not define what a knowledge industry is, which makes the argumentation weaker. And there is no definition to be found on wikipedia. It made me think about what a knowledge industry is, compared to a service/product industry. The knowledge worker is a term I use myself at times. Anecdote wrote that the word knowledge worker is now meaningless in developed countries because the shift from manual labour to job requiring knowledge work is now complete. If you look at it from that angle, all professionals are knowledge workers, and the term becomes obsolete. Is a farmer not a knowledge worker?

Mariette explains the 'stock and flow' approaches to knowledge. (by the way an article from 2002 by Dick Stenmark that I still like very much for its explanation of the two approaches can be found here). He states that supporters of the flow view of knowledge:
"may thus understand knowledge management systems not as an IT artefact but as an environment of people, organizational processes, business strategies and IT, where the objective is to leverage and advance the knowledge of those people."
And states that: "the ICCO alliance is one of the few NGOs to have taken a step towards adopting the flow approach to knowledge." I think it is a bit tricky to use the approaches to label one or the other organization. It might be better to use the distinction between the two approaches to point out where some approaches may be flawed or to understand a difference in thinking about the best knowledge management intervention in a certain situation.
Wenger furthermore talks about a third wave of knowledge management:
" The third wave is now starting to focus on strategic capabilities. It reflects a view of knowledge as strategic asset and places the emphasis on the strategic stewardship of knowledge domains. The promise of knowledge management now lies in a systematic knowledge strategy and in the potential of communities of practice as a vehicle for engaging
practitioners in the required strategic conversation."
Maybe organizations should learn how to manage knowledge as a strategic asset?

Let me finish by trying to formulate my opinion about the statement made by the article: I think the development sector can indeed benefit from improved knowledge management interventions. Nevertheless, I think I disagree that knowledge was never a concern. Lots of organizations started out with 'knowledge transfer' strategies. For instance, it is a sector where evaluation is really institutionalized and embedded.

It would be good to see a better knowledge systems analysis of the development sector and where knowledge creation and innovate is hampered. I see the gap mainly in separate learning circles in the south and in the north that do not sufficiently merge. And Dick Stenmark gives a hint to why this gap may exist: 'only individuals who have a requisite level of shared background can truly exchange knowledge. Tradition, profession and organizational belonging all carry their own assumptions. The more overlapping these tacit assumptions and experiences the better (eg. if all three realms overlap likelihood of understanding will increase.'

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