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The following article, contains thoughts about knowledge management and the AESOPIAN Project, based on a document called "Best Practices, Benchmarking and Knowledge Management". The following article was first published in the NECTAR update. Nectar is a key resource and focus of debate for the enabling discipline of telematics engineering, underpinning the development of ICT applications for the Information Society.

In the throws of generalisation

Putting the best into practices

The way we do things in given circumstances need not be carefully thought out and even less written down to qualify for the label "practice", should we ever wish to call it so. The moment we add the qualification "best", however, we are talking about a quite different beast. The word "best" implies evaluation, but the association of the two words has come to mean much more. The notion of "best practices" goes beyond figuring out what worked well in a project with a view to doing the same or even better next time. It involves a generalisation. The underlying belief behind the notion of "best practices" is that we can extract certain of our ways of doing things and capitalise on them elsewhere in a different context. Of course, each of us does just that quite naturally when we learn from our experience. Teams have been known to be good at it too. However, the drive to develop "best practices" that currently animates managers and politicians is based on the belief that in generalising this formulation of selected experience, the way things are done in industry and enterprise can evolve and develop more rapidly to the greater benefit of the economy. Effectively, the idea of capitalising on the experience of those working elsewhere is appealing. For a great number of companies it could be the source of a crucial commercial advantage. As the authors of the AESOPIAN project put it: "For many organisations, winning business on costs only will become progressively more difficult as they are faced with growing competition from economies where the traditional factors of production are cheaper. For organisations facing this problem competing on knowledge and competence is essential." From a more radical perspective, one might also talk of a knowledge ecology in which there is an attempt to reduce wastage. But here is not the place to develop that idea. The major problem remains how this knowledge is selected and how it may best be communicated to those who need it.

The writing on the wall

The authors of the AESOPIAN project believe that this can best be done by using information and communication technologies (ICTs). They propose to create a technological support system that enables top managers to "get the right knowledge at the right place at the right moment." To do so requires that essential knowledge be available in a transferable form. Unfortunately it generally isn't. The only practical and economical form to transfer such knowledge on a large scale is in writing. The knowledge may be embedded in a database and available world-wide via the Internet, but it still has to be written first and subsequently interpreted. The AESOPIAN project presupposes that the formulation of best practices in writing be satisfactory. This is a rather unfortunate - albeit probably inevitable - option, as there are evident difficulties in attempting to formulate practices in writing such that they can be understood and acted on by others especially when those people are working in different contexts. No matter how ingenious a communications tool may be, its success is dependent in the long run on the content it vehicles making sense and being of worth to others.

The importance of context

There is another problem in the notion of best practices, especially when we seek to develop them and make them available by database techniques. The value of a practice depends on the context in which it takes places. Any attempt at generalisation has, to a certain extent, to extract the practice from its context. In so doing, there is a risk that the resulting "best practice" falls far short of being the best way of acting in the new context. The additional mediation due to ICTs increases the risk of misunderstanding and consequent inappropriate choices. Thankfully we can have some confidence that people will weigh up what is proposed against the experience of their own context - something the computer can in no way do - and reach the most appropriate conclusions. However, no matter how careful we might be, judgement can be warped by inherent characteristics of a delivery system that works in quite insidious ways. That may sound somewhat paranoid. But it isn't. Let's take an example. "The creation, gathering, storage, access and use of practical knowledge is what for many organisations in the ICT sector is the main challenge of what knowledge management promises" say the authors of the AESOPIAN project. The model they propose requires that the way things are done be broken down into a number of much smaller practices. The model then allows each of these smaller entities to be worked and re-worked if necessary. But are we justified in assuming that we can safely divide up ways of working in this manner without robbing them of their meaningfulness? Can we treat the resulting bits and pieces as separate, discrete items that can be manipulated like so many unrelated objects on a shelf? If we consider that ways of working are complex phenomena which are an inseparable part of the context as a whole, will not this analytical reification lead us to misjudge what we are doing - despite our caution? What is required is a process-based approach to knowledge management that maintains an overall vision of the context in which ways of working are interrelated and evolving. Computers are not good at handling evaluation in complex interrelated contexts, whereas humans can be. To improve our use of knowledge, in particular in evolving and communicating better ways of working, we need to find the right balance between developing pertinent human capacities and competencies, per se, and the abilities of tools used.

The role of evaluation

The above conclusion leads us to yet another apparent oversight in an essentially technological approach to best practices: the key role of evaluation as a factor of motivation, understanding and access to necessary competencies on the part of a wide range of actors involved. When we talk about "best practices" we are talking about "change". Change naturally provokes excitement and generates resistance. What is to be changed and by whom? Who should decide? The notion of "best practices" postulates that choices can be dictated by extrapolating past experience in deciding new behaviours. This may not always be appropriate. Whether change be by evolution or revolution, the difficulty of introducing it lies in obtaining the adhesion of all the actors involved. Involving all the actors in the process of evaluation can bring the necessary understanding of the need for change (should need there be). It can also bring about the learning required to carry out those changes successfully. Whereas cutting actors off from that learning process by having experts decide what is best for them can lead to much wasted time and effort explaining what others have learnt and overcoming resistance.

Challenging assumptions

To say a word in favour of the AESOPIAN project partners, who are intelligent, sensitive, well-intentioned people, many of the things I talk about above were clearly not in their remit. Theirs was a technological answer to a business knowledge-management problem. It is probable that the AESOPIAN choice was tacitly dictated by the underlying technological bias of the context in which their research work was taking place. Even had they wished to address such issues as writing skills and human empowerment through evaluation in conjunction with their technological research, compartmentalisation of knowledge areas and related programmes would have hindered them doing so. Programme logic and funding limitations have a great influence on project choices and ensuing results. The fields of research related to the so-called "Information Society", as epitomised by many European Union programmes, are built on the unchallenged assumption that extremely widespread use of information and communications technology is desirable and inevitable. There is a will to enhance human functions, in particular with respect to industry and commerce, with the aid of computer networks. While this might be a productive choice in some cases, we have to be careful that over generalisation doesn't lead us astray. The computer does not do all better than us. Wishing to enhance knowledge management by the use of ICTs to store highly contextual data might well be one such mistake when human brains do it so much better. The tools might be better off being used to help locate those who have the required knowledge and putting others in contact with them. The "only" problem with this proposition is that it is easier to own and control databases than people. Market logic (and that of governments) tends to favour solutions that are concrete and can be readily controlled over the immaterial and the apparently unpredictable.
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Created: June 13th, 1999 - Last up-dated: June 13th, 1999