Category Archives: technology

Brothels in Bangladesh – a direct consequence of climate change

As I come to the shift of gear, the dreamy limbo of writing up the museums work we’ve been doing for the past few months and starting to clear a space to think about the work on horizon scanning and futures which hoves into few and will take up most of my thinking and unthinking space from February to July, I’m quite alert to tiny fragments which pack a punch. I’m finding a surprising amount in our mla database which seems to connect directly to the hsf thinking in ways that are almost frightening. For example I wrote recently about poetry as a kind of horizon scanner – the poetry library gets a surprising frontline view of what matters to people.Then in the Guardian this week I was startled by an article on the rise in prostitution in Bangladesh:

“The brothel opened 20 years ago, making it the newest and largest of the 14 recognised brothels in the country. It is set on the meeting point of two vast rivers, the Jamuna and the Ganges (known locally as the Padma), which makes this a very busy place to catch a ferry. Trucks carrying rice, jute, sugar cane and fish from the west and south-west of the country queue here for two or three days at a time to cross the river for the drive to the capital, Dhaka. In Bangladesh on a BBC World Service boat to look at the impact of climate change, I was surprised to find that an unexpected consequence of rising water levels is the growth in demand for prostitution. River erosion has meant the closure of some ferry berths, so men wait even longer to cross the river. And, while they wait, many of them pass the time in the company of Daulatdia’s women.”

We spent some time this week at a workshop imagining scenarios for mla relationship with business (banish mla as concept, replace it with a sense of extended learning places and resources essential to the rounded worker, then ‘backcast’ from that to the present day to see how one would achieve that symbiosis over, say, 20 years).

Anyway, my question for a couple of days has been, take a scenario (not good or bad, hopeful or unhopeful, just a confluence of circumstance) and imagine backwards from that circumstance how would would have forseen it in some way.So I’m interested in the idea of taking brothels (one can deconstruct brothel of course in quite a feminist way – poor endentured women with no prospects, men with too much time on their hands and not much inclination to do cultured things) in Bangladesh (low-lying land, under-resourced in flood management, having to react rather than act, most likely to be one of the frontiers where we witness the consequences of climate change, etc).But working back from brothels, Bangladesh, flooding, too few ferries, downtime. How might one, 10 years ago have forseen this thing? What kinds of horizon scanning might one have done in, say 1997? What kinds of different policies for prostitution and flood transportation might a reasonably accurate prognosis have led to?I think it might be interesting for our hsf governance work to come at it sideways, and find some unlikely events, from history and the present, and consider what a well-scanned intelligence process might have thrown up by way of a different policy path.What’s so interesting here is how little we prize the insights that people can bring from their daily witnessing. I’m witnessing a great deal of unlikely stuff because of where I sit. But I’m not a scanner or a futurist, and there’s no-one whose sleeve I can tug about most of it. I do it because it interests me and puts a bit of pep into my daily work. Think of all those scanners out there. If, instead of simply using people’s excess computing power to calculate space things,we used their witnessing power to help us see further, think of the changes that could bring about.

It happens a bit of course. Say the RSPB and birdwatching. There’s a model of participatory scanning that it’s worth looking more closely at, and I know Natural England so some interesting scanning using Cognitive Edge techniques. And it’s all trendy to talk about the wisdom of crowds. But I’m not talking about exactly any of that here. I think I’m talking about something a bit different that I’m trying to find and describe better.I’m off to read the Guardian and let it settle for a bit while I think about what it is I want to say next.

But before I do, a tiny, gorgeous little thing from my second visit to Louise Bougeois, accompanied by sketches of skyscapers as people – perhaps three of them standing together:

“One man was telling a story, it was a very good story, and it made him happy, but he told it so fast that nobody understood it.

Yup, that happens a lot.

Advertisements

Negative space, the most important knowledge space

I’ve always been interested in the shadow side of organisations – beyond tacit, that dark underbelly of unstated, often collusive, collective behaviour which informs, and glues together, the official work of the organisation.  Sometimes its a good thing, somethings it’s a seriously bad thing, and gets in the way, but is impossible to clear away. I doubt I’m saying anything about shadows, intangibles, invisibles, informals, that others have not already said.  Although I suppose I could say that without the shadow you’d not be able to see the shape of the thing.  So anyone who cares to look at an organisation without it’s shadow side is doing something like trying to look at the shape, size and colour of an object at the height of the midday sun (when we know only mad dogs and Englishman are out anyway).  

Some nice work has been done taking Jung’s ideas on shadow identity and applying them to archetypes of leadership.  Wizard, king, something, something (I forget what typical modes of leadership were chosen), each has it’s shadow side and the leader must be aware of the effects of the shadow side in order to work to best effect and chose the right people to surround him/her.That’s shadows, anyway.

More recently, I’ve become obsessed with a different but related concept which I can’t help feeling holds the key to the next round of my thinking and practice (and so, inevitably) Sparknow’s thinking and practice.And that’s negative space.  A road partly travelled but I suspect with a long hard climb ahead.It comes from the idea that, in art, the space around the object is where attention needs to be for the artist.   It’s easier to draw the spaces round a hand, a leaf, a chair a tree, and allow the object to emerge from attention to the negative spaces.  Henry Moore said something like ‘the hole holds more meaning than the material surrounding it’.  A window frames a view and makes sense of it (which isn’t quite negative space but is about looking through rather than at.)

My tiny, but growing and excitable hunch, is that in this germ of an idea is a huge truth.  We’re stumbling across it already by seeing knowledge workers as navigators – people through whom you find access; by making a shape of someone by what they google or what they recommend on Amazon; cookie trails allow us to trace the outline of a person without ever having to see the person directly.  I think we can go one stage further and imagine, in thinking what knowledge is key operating knowledge, a two step process (with more steps to follow as I imagine it)

1.  trace the outline of a person, google-wise, or amazonishly, through social network analysis, by what they use, what they recommend,  who they consort with

2.  persuade the person then to step out of themselves and look back at the space left and then describe not what they do, but what isn’t happening now they aren’t doing it, preferably to an invisible or actual colleague who they care about, so that they want to describe the task(s) in enough detail that the other is able to carry it/them out sufficiently well for only the smallest number of organisational hiccups to occur.

This goes perfectly with two things which seem increasingly important to me from everything I see.  Both are to do with knowledge not being captured.Codified knowledge doesn’t exist.  Codified information does though.Knowledge can’t be captured, except in the most labour intensive ways and even then, like a map, the terrain is always inescapably larger and more complex than the map of it.  It’s impossible to make a map of the world which covers the world.  Or if not impossible, actually pointless since it would add nothing.  It’s the miniature form of the map as a guide which makes it portable, relevant, useful to the user.  A 1:1 scale map of the world would be useless.  Knowledge capture of the literal kind is exactly the same.  Useless.  Too big.   Compression, illumination, symbols which make useful patterns are reference points, are what is useful.

Information, guidance and reference materials can be captured, but in the end (Bruno Latour-wise) its the interaction of the agent with the knowledge-object which determines an action. More and more work is conducted in a non-linear way – not at your desk, not in a sequence, but in groups and simultaneously.  The knowledge exists in the presence of each other and of codified resources in an environment conducive to exchange (slow or fast, more or less documented, depending on your purpose.)  So the knowledge exists in a moment in time, the information which results can point to, but not replicate, the experience of that knowledge.  So knowledge is in gaps which are temporarily closed and then opened again when people disperse from a meeting, a room.  It’s a vanishing thing, leaving a more or less ghostly trace, with some embodied consequences for those who were present, and perhaps those in their networks. That’s the first thing about capture.The second is to do with the contract between organisation and individual, or between organisations, particularly in circumstances where knowledge of business processes must be retained during a move, or restructing, or merger or upheaval of any kind. 

Capture is a hierarchical, intrusive concept.  It implies minions, service, servitude.  It implies containment.  It’s entirely the wrong concept for thinking about how to retain what is needed in order to operate the business.  And it takes no account of the individual on the receiving end of the upheaval.Which is again where negative space comes in.  

An invitation to imagine themselves as vanished and see

1.  what work does not get done when they are not at work and

2. what work would need to get done by another filling their shoes

is a far more delicate and thoughtful conversation and one that can lead to the sense of knowledge as a donation.  

Firstly the indirectness of the question allows them to pay attention and describe something which sits not in the individual but in the space between them and their imaginary colleague and will allow for a much more open and trusting description.  Then also, by going through this imagining process, the individual who is up-heaved can also be invited to share something that they themselves will be a beneficiary of – they can donate what they know and also treasure it for themselves;  they can leave a legacy and take it with them.  And we know from oral history work that the process of valuing themselves expressly in ways that they perhaps haven’t before, makes them visible to themselves and others in ways they haven’t been before.

I’m almost out of time and I’ve not even referred to the thing which propelled this idea (which I’ve tried out a bit, but not found a way to communicate well yet) right up to the surface for me was Shibboleth, the exhibition at the Tate Modern.  It’s a huge crack, running apparently through the fabric of the floor in the Turbine Hall, the main exhibition hall.  And it’s astonishing.  I’ll write more soon, but here’s a short note from the Tate Modern website.Much more to follow while I try and find this idea and what it means for me.  

About

Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth is the first work to intervene directly in the fabric of the Turbine Hall. Rather than fill this iconic space with a conventional sculpture or installation, Salcedo has created a subterranean chasm that stretches the length of the Turbine Hall. The concrete walls of the crevice are ruptured by a steel mesh fence, creating a tension between these elements that resist yet depend on one another. By making the floor the principal focus of her project, Salcedo dramatically shifts our perception of the Turbine Hall’s architecture, subtly subverting its claims to monumentality and grandeur. Shibboleth asks questions about the interaction of sculpture and space, about architecture and the values it enshrines, and about the shaky ideological foundations on which Western notions of modernity are built.In particular, Salcedo is addressing a long legacy of racism and colonialism that underlies the modern world. A ‘shibboleth’ is a custom, phrase or use of language that acts as a test of belonging to a particular social group or class. By definition, it is used to exclude those deemed unsuitable to join this group.‘The history of racism’, Salcedo writes, ‘runs parallel to the history of modernity, and is its untold dark side’. For hundreds of years, Western ideas of progress and prosperity have been underpinned by colonial exploitation and the withdrawal of basic rights from others. Our own time, Salcedo is keen to remind us, remains defined by the existence of a huge socially excluded underclass, in Western as well as post-colonial societies.In breaking open the floor of the museum, Salcedo is exposing a fracture in modernity itself. Her work encourages us to confront uncomfortable truths about our history and about ourselves with absolute candidness, and without self-deception.Doris Salcedo was born in 1958 in Bogotá, Colombia, where she lives and works. Amonographic display of her work can be seen on Level 3 as part of the Poetry and Dream collection displays.                

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.

‘Those ain’t our rules’

‘Those ain’t our rules
We didn’t write’m
No need to read’m’
[From the film of ‘The Cider House Rules’ – the apple pickers come back each season and only when Homer Wells joins them and reads the rules out loud have the rules ever been shared. Rules, and doing the right thing regardless of the rules, are the core themes of the film, elaborated in the book.]

We come across that a lot. How to to make rules that work and are not just the voice of a pointlessly rigid authority. Three illustrations.

1. Early on in the life of Spark, Philippa joined us, rejoining having left the team for a while and gone via one of the Big Five consulting firms. She brought with her the dress code instructions (lipstick, belts, earrings, every tiny detail proscribed). We wondered why there could not be a rule which was ‘dress appropriately’.

2. There’s a health centre in East London which has a bunch of rules, protocols, guidance, around diversity, inclusion, whatever. Not a single one of these is displayed, or even taught. These lists are filed somewhere and come out when they need to be attached to a bid for money. The rest of the time, those who work or have been around the centre a long time walk newcomers over an invisible boundary into the space where certain behaviour is OK and other behaviour is not. This is a part of East London rife with racism, confrontation, social tension. But the rules are not ever articulated as explicit constraints. Rather, when someone steps over in a line in their behaviour, somebody who understands what does and does not go will gently, in companionship, prompt an interruption, a reflection, and indication of what will and won’t wash. It comes from within, a tacitly shared understanding of what this place means. It’s a place made over 15 or 20 years of repetition, reincorporation, embodiment of what the health centre stands for.

3. Last year we spent most of the year engaged in a substantial lessons learned review for the Chief Scientific Advisor and Futures and Horizon Scanning head of a government department. The intention of the work was to research, emerge lessons and lead to production of governance and good practice guidelines for commissioning, carrying out and disseminating this kind of work. We initiated the work with private interviews with those directly involved with the original programme, supplemented by 10 minute telephone calls with 70 – 80 of those more on the periphery. Then we used this raw material to create an annotated timeline of the key turning points in the first 5 years and pinpoint where lessons might be found and to frame more detailed questions to work through in short, recorded conversations supplemented by a week of structured cross-department events, using pinboarding and narrative techniques. All the audio and visual material was documented. The body of materials was segmented and analysed in a tailormade cataloguing and research device designed for us by Spanner (www.spanner.org) and the emergent insights used to construct provocative essays on aspects of governance – a way of reporting back to the client and inviting department-wide reflection on developing and upholding standards and behaviours in these emergent and complex areas of evidence-gathering. At no stage did will tell anyone what to do or that that was a definitive guideline. Rather, we gathered experience and presented this back in such a way that the recipient would be inclined to consider it and form judgements in relation to it which would affect how they acted in future.

It calls to mind the story of the hotel key, as told by Bruno Latour in a essay on knowledge claims. The question is, how do you get the hotel guest to return the key? Do you put up rules? (‘Those ain’t our rules’) Do you attach a huge wooden object to the key that is a constant physical reminder and makes it bulky, uncomfortable and easier to leave at reception? Are the rules outside the object, or prompts, embedded in the object? So do you get to rules by words, or by a kind of oddness which interrupts the flow, the autopilot of actions and reactions, and shifts the relationship between person and object without anything having to be said?

Of course nowadays, the key is a disposable credit card sliver of a thing which mostly doesn’t work and needs reprogramming after several increasingly irritable trips to reception.

[Latour, Bruno (1991) ‘Materials of Power: Technology is society made durable’ in John Law (ed.) A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology and Domination Sociological Review Monograph 38 Routledge, London, pp 103 – 132]