Peel me another ant

I’m finding the bubbling and brewing of possible threads of thinking which I need to fumble into writing quite a torment. At the risk of mixing my metaphors too greatly I’m finding the hints of ideas and piles of old scraps and scribbles bouncing around, sometimes bouncing off each other, sometimes sticking to each other to make a fuzzy kind of chain of enquiry. It always ends with more questions that’s for sure.

And somehow I notice with some alarm I’m ducking metaphor, even though I need it, because I can’t wrestle it into a place where I can see it clearly, let alone write anything down Although I’ve a nice article I’ve kept on dog-whistling politics as a way into writing about it.

And then, I’m wondering about bias in narrative enquiry and documentation, how we select memories, how we recall, what role remeniscence plays in opening up future possibility.

I’ve also got a nice little riff building which tries to link Elias Canetti’s ‘Crowds and Power’ with the recent news that Fiona Reynolds is going to take the National Trust into being an environmental activitist, and a small article in the newspaper on the same day about how sex-workers are clubbing together to give foreign sex-workers English lessons to make them a bit safer. (I once shared a childminder with Fiona, a long time ago, and I can tell Gordon Brown and whoever now runs DEFRA, I wouldn’t be in their shoes.)

And then again, I’m tormented (almost to sleeplessness) by the stupidity of having taken on a 7,000 word commission to write about knowledge intensive firms, knowledge work and knowledge workers. But I don’t even know where to begin with it. I realise after 12 years I know nothing, nothing about what knowledge work is, or knowledge workers. Do I start with the knowledge economy and move down, as it were, into the day-to-day? Do I try and make a distinction between knowledge and information. I lay awake in bed last night trying to work out which of the following were knowledge workers:
architect, structural engineer, site project manager, bricklayer, electrician, plasterer
consultant, doctor, nurse, volunteer
lawyer, compliance officer
office of fair trading policy maker, callcentre manager, call centre worker
clothes designer, shop manager, shop assistant
scientist, researcher
librarian, knowledge manager, information officer
web designer, code writer
professor, phd student, mba student, undergraduate
sushi chef, maitre d’, waiter, plongeur
or what about a health and safety officer?

Or do we all slide in and out of knowledge work? Say the scientist is really only a scientist until he works in a multi-disciplinary team and has to shape his independent contribution to be collaboratively effective without being watered down? The waiter is only a waiter when he serves table, but a knowledge worker when he knows exactly where a particular guest likes to be seated? A call centre worker is an information worker until he has to handle a difficult call from an angry customer with a long history of difficult dealings which needs unravelling and piecing back together so the right actions can be taken? A plasterer is only a plasterer when he does an odd job or works under instruction, but a knowledge worker when he works in a team who have to construct a house? Is it knowledge work for the help desk woman to say ‘have you turned it off and back on again?’ I was down the Orange shop the other day because I couldn’t hear people ringing me and they couldn’t hear me. The very helpful man undid the back of the phone, blew hard into it and reassembled it and it worked fine. Last time something was wrong he got the SIM card out, got a children’s eraser and rubbed off whatever static had built up and that worked too. Is that knowledge work? I think so. It takes a lot of knowledge to know something so simple is the answer.

I am hanging on by the merest thread here of being able to make any sense at all of the distinctions, only slightly helped by an article I read in an Irish business magazine I picked up while idling my way back from Geneva on a plane yesterday. It talks of Ireland as a knowledge economy.

‘[An] example is the change that has been going on in medical technology. Go back 20 years and we were producing disposable items – products that would be used once in a hospital and thrown away. Now we are producing cardiac stems and we are producing orthopaedic instruments. What has happened with all of those is that tehy are high-value-added products that require good engineering and technical skills. So instead of paying operatives E.25,000 to E.30,000, they are now employing engineers and technicians that earn E.40,000 to E100,000 each. That is the change to the high knowledge economy. The people employed now have to have skills. More importantly for us, they are people who innovate. They aim to improve processes and do things better and apply that knowledge.’

Would that make, say Jamie Oliver a knowledge worker (chef, TV, restaurants, social responsibility) and my local Italian delicatessen/cafe, restaurant not? Even though there’s probably been as much entreprenuership, hard work, know-how, innovation and risk taking down the road to get that off the ground?

Or is knowledge work about connecting people, brokering links. There’s a danger that, in our energy to identify, profile the jobs of, list competences for and upskill these people, whoever they are, we make it essential that they are both busy and seen to be busy, always on the go, always meeting in third spaces, wi-fired up, always updating themselves on the world, and the world on them, responding to email enquiries on their blackberries, constantly foraging for the networks which will compensate for the lack of social capital and thinking time they could build if they were allowed to sit in one place (cold desk?), put up pictures of their family and go home at five. I remember once, in a piece of work on physical knowledge spaces, somebody told me that when she really wants to think, she doesn’t stay at her own desk. Too many interruptions. She goes and hides at a hot desk.

I can’t help thinking of bee colonies. It’s the dumb old workers, the dones who get to do all the work while the queen lounges around shouting ‘peel me another ant’ while she contemplates the mystery and philosophy of the bee hive and its associated rituals and hierarchies over the millennia. I bet she gets more knowledge work done than they do.

I’m reminded of a rather excellent book by Jane Jacobs on which I’m sure I’ll write more and on which I’ve written before in the good old days of knocking out never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-width papers with Clive to force us to think on different subjects. (Rather charmingly, he rang last week after a long silence to say it’s time we wrote our potboiler.) Jane Jacobs is a very interesting woman. ‘Systems of Survival’ is a very interesting book, essential, in my view to getting to some clear thinking in this muddled domain of knowledge management and knowledge sharing. In the smallest of nutshells, she writes that there are two, and only two, human systems. One is the Guardian system, conservative, looks after it’s own, fuelled by tradition, ritual and the stories which hold the present community clearly linked to the past, not comfortable with strangers, deal with each other through bonds of trust not legal contract. The other is the Trader sytem, explorers, travellers, deal-doers, contracters, they go out, encounter new worlds and people, they strike deals, make money, acquire capital of various kinds. Big businesses are Trader systems. the Public sector providers have largely been a Guardian system. To try and mix the two is to try to mix oil and water. They don’t. I’m not going to unpeel the layers here, except to say that, in my view, in our knowledge management world, we’ve not done enough to understand the implications of this. We bungle about, with our snatched bits of Einstein and Peter Drucker, our magpied scraps of theory from different philosophies of knowledge and schools of management theory, culted gurus, and make out like knowledge work sits comfortably simultaneously in both the Guardian and the Trader systems. But where does a community of practice end and a marketplace begin? Are the knowledge workers the boundary people who are uniquely competent to see both worlds and pass from one to another and back again?

I don’t know. I’m in a state of entire not-knowing. My best hunch though is to flick through the literature on the subject, so as not to get caught out by how others have seen it, but let it pass through not rest in me, and to look for my inspiration in other places. I’m going to look at people and places and businesses and things I admire and try to see the knowledge work in it and see where that takes me, rather than start with abstract notions of knowledge work and knowledge worker.

I must go and lie down now.

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2 responses to “Peel me another ant

  1. Pingback: Designer Clothes » Designer Clothes July 28, 2007 7:39 am

  2. Knowledge is an undercurrent. It pervades to eternity. You have got the point to a large extent. Knowledge is more of an observation, a subtle whiff of air. It can not passed across as chunk of data over the internet it has to be explored and it is to be done continuously. We all know about Einstein and his achievements, thats information. But how many of us have really bothered about what he really meant in his papers on relativity. Well thats knowledge for us. Depends on how much time we dedicate to know it , either in full or in parts.

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