Monday, 23 February 2015 00:00
The increased use of ICT has provided many Sri Lankan managers with access to information and associated knowledge
We often deal with information and in fact have even gone beyond the information era. Knowledge in multiple forms is around us. Knowledge challenges are prevalent in many Sri Lankan workplaces. As Sri Lanka seeks to harness more knowledge for its development, a knowledge voyage is essential for Sri Lanka if it wants to grow economically. Let’s consider the what, why and how of such a knowledge voyage in today’s column.
It was Peter Drucker who said that knowledge has become the capital rather than a capital in the ‘post-capitalistic’ era. This is an interesting way to look at how people contribute to organisations. Knowledge is generally referred to as what is known.
The Oxford dictionary describes knowledge as “facts, information and skills acquired through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.” It has become a capital that is being invested, anticipating returns.
We commonly use terms such as knowledge worker and knowledge work. According to Drucker, knowledge work is about sensing, judging, creating ideas and expert opinions, building networks of relationships and producing value using knowledge and information. It is all about knowledge in action. Then, who is a knowledge worker? He or she is an employee who is simultaneously an investor and owner of the enterprise he/she is working for.
We see an emergence of knowledge work in Sri Lanka, in line with the global trend. Knowledge is acquired through learning. Learning is essentially an individual phenomenon. In other words, learning takes place within an individual. The individual becomes knowledgeable. That’s where the game starts. Knowledge is power.
Michel Foucault vividly elaborates us on this. “Power is exercised by virtue of things being known and people being seen.” He further states: “The exercise of power perpetually creates knowledge and, conversely, power as knowledge.”
Russell Ackoff, an organisational researcher and a theorist, came up with a fascinating concept of knowledge way back in 1989. According to him, the content of the human mind can be categorised into several forms, namely data, information, knowledge and wisdom.
Data are symbols. They are raw and have no meaning on their own. They can exist in any form of evidence or facts. In the computer, a spreadsheet generally starts out by holding data.
Information is the data that is processed to be useful. It provides answers to ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, and ‘when’ questions. The raw form has now become more organised.
Knowledge is the application of data and information. It answers ‘how’ questions, with regard to human understanding. It is in fact the appropriate collection of information, in order to make it useful. Someone gains knowledge through acquiring information. In the computer this means using stored information to do something.
Wisdom is a deeper level of understanding. Understanding is essentially the appreciation of ‘why’. It is the process by which one can take knowledge and synthesise new knowledge from the previously held knowledge. In computers, Artificial Intelligence systems are able to synthesise new knowledge from previously stored information and knowledge. Wisdom is also the process by which we also decide between right and wrong, good and bad.
Do we see this knowledge voyage happening in Sri Lankan organisations? The signs are promising. With the increased usage of Information and Communication Technology (ICT), many Sri Lankan managers have access to information and associated knowledge. Facing the three-decade long war and still managing their businesses was one clear sign of using wisdom to survive in tough times.
Knowledge through the ages
Knowledge has been a concern of philosophers and scientist since ancient times. Let’s look at three prominent characters that appear in three different periods in three different parts of the world.
From an early western perspective, the Greek philosopher Plato offered three perspectives of knowledge. According to him, knowledge and perception are the same; true belief is knowledge and true belief accompanied by a rational account is knowledge. His idea of rationality associated with knowledge is prevalent in all his writings.
Moving from west to East, we meet Kautilya who lived in India during the 4th Century B.C. He was an advisor to King Asoka. Kautilya believed that institutions were a prerequisite to economic growth, good governance and knowledge, and that ethical conduct and economic growth are interdependent. Kautilya believed in the virtuous cycle of economic growth based on knowledge.
Immanuel Kant, an 18th Century German philosopher believed in creating a compromise between the empiricists who believed that knowledge was acquired through experience alone and the rationalists who say that reason alone provides us with knowledge.
According to him, using reason without applying it to experience will only lead to illusions, while experience will be purely biased without first being checked for meaning.
The French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926–1984) offered novel insights on knowledge. He said that modern power operates through the construction of “new” capacities and modes of activity rather than through the limitations of pre‐existing ones. Knowledge is power. The exercise of this power itself creates and causes the emergence of new objects of knowledge. At the very heart of this knowledge‐power relationship, and constantly provoking it, are the defiance and urgency of freedom. In brief, knowledge is power.
Knowledge and brain
Knowledge generation is related to the particular configuration of the human brain. This is in essence, the presence of the Left Brain and Right Brain. We tend to call them the logical left and rhythmic right, highlighting their capabilities.
Knowledge is the result of integrated left and right brain thinking. The Right Brain is mostly visual and processes information in an intuitive and simultaneous way, looking first at the whole picture then the details.
The Left Brain is verbal and processes information in an analytical and sequential way, looking first at the pieces then putting them together to get the whole. A healthy left-right combination will ensure a artistic and scientific way of gathering knowledge leading to wisdom.
Are we using both sides of the brain in our workplaces? Different situations require different uses. Preparing a corporate plan for an example, would require envisioning the future. This may result in an inspirational vision and a solid mission. It is a classic right-brain activity. In contrast, forecasting volumes, projections, ratios and other key numbers are all possible through the use of left brain. What is required is to effectively use both sides. Sri Lankan organisations can do much more in this respect, moving beyond the popularly seen short-term orientation.
Ikujiro Nonaka, a veteran researcher of knowledge management, describes two types of knowledge, namely tacit and explicit.
Let’s start with the easily seen one. Explicit is also known as the coded knowledge. It is the one which is available in soft and hard forms in textbooks, manuals, CDs, etc. It is easily communicated and shared, as in product specifications, a scientific formula or a computer program.
Tacit Knowledge is based on personal experience. It is hard to explain and, therefore difficult to communicate to others. It could be a craft or profession, a particular technology or product market, or the activities of a work group or team.
As tacit knowledge is within individuals, the challenge is how to capture individual-based knowledge to make it explicit and common knowledge for use across the entire organisation.
We have many examples of tacit knowledge getting trapped without properly translated. Take the case of an indigenous physician. He might touch a patient and heal him. Whereas the ‘golaya’ (student) might be taking notes of his teacher’s behaviour and try to learn which may not be fully successful. Why some of the ancient technologies used to construct stupas, dagobas, tanks and canals are not available now can be easily attributable to the non-transference of the tacit knowledge of our forefathers to a coded form.
Even in a corporate scenario, the resignation of an experienced manager might create a dearth of knowledge unless a proper plan is in place to ensure translation of at least some of his/her tacit knowledge to his/her successor. This can be a critical knowledge challenge in order to ensure business continuity.
Knowledge and technology
Knowledge is crippled without the usage of technology. The impact of information and communications technology (ICT) on managing knowledge can be at three levels. They are informational, relational and transformational.
Informational refers to the ability of ICT to source and convert required data into information in an accurate and timely manner. This information will enable effective decision-making by presenting information through decision support systems and expert systems.
Relational Impact is through the flow of information from point to point in the organisation and into the environment. Here organisational hierarchies will be transformed into networks enabling virtual teams and communities of practice to function.
Transformational Impact will enable organisational systems to change when the environment changes. The organisation should be agile in sourcing inputs and redesigning organisational structures and processes, while obtaining quick feedback from consumers at the end of supply chains.
Apart from a few success stories, we are mostly at the informational level of ICT usage as a nation. Yet, glimpses of potential are visible both in the private and public sectors. The transformation which happened within the Department of Immigration and Emigration is one such example.
We are in the knowledge era and our organisations have to be not only knowledge users but knowledge creators and sharers. Strengthening research and development arms in Sri Lankan organisations is one vital step in this direction. Choosing innovation over imitation should be the preferred way of conducting businesses.
As Peter Drucker said, “The single greatest challenge facing managers in the developed countries of the word is to raise the productivity of knowledge and service works.”