Like a Samurai’s sword

Since writing an essay on knowledge work in the construction industry, I find myself unusually alert to questions of knowledge work. Not in the narrow sense that knowledge management sees knowledge work, but in a broader sense: what, in fact, is knowledge work, how does it come about, what does one need to understand about the conditions that make it knowledge work? In fact, I think probably I’m being nudged here too, because our work on museums, libraries and archives, which will report in June. This identified two things lost to the system of work and organisation, things which need retrieving in some way. One is discipline and rigour around information and it’s handling, and the other is the fruitful downtime of the employee: those moments of wandering to the library and having the empty space to make some new, and deeper connections which put the immediate decision or piece of work into context. Or those moments, de-blackberried, uncoupled from milestones and deadlines, where someone might have a moment of new inspiration that renews the spirit and changes the lens through which the immediate task is viewed. It might be a spark of innovation, or something smaller, but no less meaningful when accumulated with other such small moments.

(A side-comment here, related, but as yet untethered and floating free, is a previous observation, in work on office space, on how the social fabric of organisations has been ripped from them with different forms of nomadic working, hotdesking, open plan, project and matrix management. New organisational systems have crushed the life out of the small repetitions of informal encounter that allow trust to ripen. (I would once have added social capital here, but I’m having trouble with the capitalist metaphors which dress knowledge management up in the language of economic value creation just to get it attention from the numbers people – surely we can be bigger of that. I don’t much like the misappropriation of the word trust either, but it’ll do for now.))

And perhaps my other impetus is that my current enquiry is into the commissioning of horizon scanning and futures (i.e. uncomfortable) research into environmental issues in a government department, and how the policymaker can be better equipped to direct, manage and assure such commissions. I’m sure this will influence where I go and what I notice for the next few months. I’ve a feeling this is quite a long intense exploration, likely to sprawl into values, craft, labour versus work, all over the place, but it might going somewhere, but for now, and to restart some kind of blogging discipline, I’m going to just list a single noticing which seem to belong under this loose working classification.

I was trying some Doris Lessing (who in a her own way I’ve quoted about the conditions for knowledge work when I wrote about her Nobel Prize winning speech and the need for the storyteller to cloak themselves in silence). Short stories, gathered in a volume called ‘The story of a non-marrying man’. The first story, ‘Out of the Fountain’ is about a diamond cutter:

‘Ephraim was a middle son, not brilliant or stupid, not good or bad. He was nothing in particular. His brothers became diamond merchants, but Ephraim was not cut out for anything immediately obvious, and so last he was apprenticed to an uncle to learn the trade of diamond cutting.

To cut a diamond perfectly is an act like a samurai’s sword thrust, or a master archers’ centred arrow. When an important diamond is shaped, a man may spend a week, or even weeks, studying it, accumulating powers of attention, memory and intuition, till he has reached that moment when he finally knows that a tap, no more, at just that point of tension in the stone will split it exactly so.’

Here’s my knowledge question for today (and in the next few days I’m going to move on to a bit of Richard Sennett, in his new thinking on craft, to Lewis Hyde’s distinction between work and labour, and to Grotowski’s description of the relationship between him and the actor, but this will do for now, from which I infer that I’m interested for now in processes of apprenticeship, of leading and following):

How many of us, in the conditions of urgent work which press hard down on us, find room to spend ‘a week, or even weeks…accumulating powers of attention, memory and intution’? Do we give ourselves permission? Are we given permission? Do we, perhaps need to start taking permission rather than wait for it to be given?


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