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Distributed knowledge:
dealing with key issues in governance

There has been considerable discussion recently about identifying key policy issues as an important aspect of governance. At the recent INET'97 conference in Kuala Lumpur there was much talk of key policy issues to be addressed by the Internet Society and how best these issues be approached. In the final report of the so-called European High Level Expert Group a list of ten key issues for priority treatment were put forward. In preparations for the ITU's new Telecom Interactive event there has also been discussion of ways and means of debating key issues for the industry and society in general. However, the major question may well not so much be what the key issues are but how we can best identify and deal with them. While many organisations realise the importance of playing a role in governance by treating key issues (whether they be related to the Internet - or more generally concern other fields), a lot of actors (both within and outside of governments) have great difficulties in doing so. Some of the structural and organisational reasons for their failure are as follows:
  • the lack of on-going exchange with local members or population, with at best a one-way flow of information;
  • the role of employees and officials of organisations who get their status and raison d'être from defining policy and ways of doing things and are not always willing to involve others in the process;
  • the knowledge gap between officials and membership or the population at large due to the practice whereby the former think out key issues (and learn a lot in the process) before making a finalised statement to the latter for comment (without them having been through the process of thinking out the whole issue);
  • the institutional point of view of an organisation, despite patent good will to the contrary, often diverges from that of the membership or the population with the resulting difficulty that those working for organisations have problems perceiving things from the perspectives of their members or clients.

In dealing with key issues that require wide-scale consensus and concerted effort in an extremely complex, interrelated, fast-changing world, I contend that concentrating knowledge, learning and decision-making in a small number of hands, as is currently done in most organisational contexts, is hardly the best strategy. It can lead to rigidity, inadaptedness and an inability to covince the population to adopt new ideas and ways of doing things. Using the metaphor of the network itself applied to organisations and the development of knowledge, a possible solution, it seems to me, lies in creating flexible, distributed knowledge structures. That is to say, structures that seek to develop key competencies locally and to network those competencies in a wider context. Distributing knowledge involves the largest possible number of people in an informal structure such that those people are aware of key issues, can relate them to their daily life, are articulate both about them and about possible ways of dealing with them, and can share their experience and know-how with people locally and with other groups elsewhere. Exchange between fellows, colleagues, friends and family is extremely important in developing knowledge that relates far-reaching key issues in society to down-to-earth questions of everyday life and work. Learning, for this is a form of learning even if it has nothing to do with typical learning institutions, is best done in concrete situations which are pertinent and important to the person himself or herself. And the experience and know-how of that person can only have an impact on society's policy issues if it can be expressed in concert with others.

Ways to move towards a distributed knowledge structure include:

  • maintaining an on-going face-to-face dialogue about key issues on a local level by re-orienting activities of existing structures or creating new ones so as to carry out awareness work and pertinent debate;
  • being careful about the language used to present and discuss such issues that it be both demanding in terms of clarity of meaning and accessible to as many people as possible;
  • providing satisfactory information to permit all those who so wish to participate in discussions;
  • involving as many people as possible on a local level in discussions right from the outset by collaboration between organisations and with the media;
  • seeing the discussion of key issues as an open learning process for all involved in which everyone can learn something from their fellows;
  • modifying the role of employees and organisation officials so that they can enable and facilitate exchange and policy development, amongst other things by being receptive to the points of view of their members or clients;
  • using hypertext to allow multiple levels of access to background material and discussions according to the differing needs of users;
  • using mailing lists and web publication to prolong local discussions and to open them up to the global context;
  • encouraging interregional and interorganisational exchange and collaboration to extend and consolidate local policy debates ;
  • encouraging interregional and interorganisational exchange and collaboration to extend and consolidate local policy debates ;
  • taking the initiative of involving the powers that be, whether they be governments, NGOs or industry, in such exchanges and policy formulation.

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise.

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ISSN: 1664-834X Copyright © , Alan McCluskey,
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Created: July 9th, 1997 - Last up-dated: July 11th, 1997