Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Can we manage individual knowledge?

Vasily Ryzhonkov asked a couple of interesting questions on a Linked-In discussion.

As I understand it, Vasily's first question was whether "knowledge is a human faculty, and totally belongs to human being a justified true belief and can be managed only by individual". There always seems to be a difficulty in relating individual cognitive capacities with collective cognitive capacities, but my own view is that it does make sense to talk about the collective knowledge of a group or organization, and that this is something that can be managed.

See my post Does Organizational Cognition Make Sense (April 2012).

An important issue for knowledge management in the enterprise is how the organization collectively distinguishes between justified true beliefs and unjustified false ones. (This is one of the many reasons to care about organizational intelligence.)

Vasily's second question was whether it is possible to manage somebody's knowledge. There are all sorts of professions that involve a combination of communication and influence, and these could surely be regarded as attempts to manage the knowledge of a target audience. For the sake of argument, I adopt Fayol's definition of management: to forecast and plan, to organize, to command, to coordinate and to "control" (i.e. monitor and adjust).

Here are four examples that I should regard as attempts to manage the knowledge of individuals, since they all involve some degree of planning, organization, monitoring and adjustment.

Firstly, schools. We pay schoolteachers to manage the knowledge of our children.

Secondly, an apprenticeship scheme, which puts an inexperienced person alongside an experienced person, with the explicit intention of transferring knowledge from one to the other.

Thirdly, a censorship and indoctrination scheme, whereby a government interferes with communications to its citizens, in order to shape their knowledge.

And fourthly, a covert public education scheme, which inserts information into entertainment programmes. (It is said that the popular UK radio programme "The Archers" was given stories about farming practices by the British Ministry of Agriculture.)

Let me anticipate three objections to both of these answers.

The first likely objection to both of my answers is whether that counts as managing, or whether we should use another word, like tending or nurturing or coaching or something else. But to the extent that we give management-style targets to teachers, based on the performance of their pupils, the word management seems to be an accurate description.

The second likely objection to both answers is a practical one - to what extent can someone effectively manage their own knowledge, let alone someone else's. Obviously we can debate how successful any of these might be, but surely we can't refuse to call something management simply because it doesn't always work. Football managers are still called managers, even when the team loses.

The third likely objection is an ethical one. Clearly there are ethical problems, especially if managing knowledge slides into manipulation and spin. (Steve Jobs was often praised for his skill at "reality distortion".) But there are many other kinds of management that also have ethical implications. So that doesn't make my answers incorrect, just troubling.

Original discussion on Linked-In:

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