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Stepping down from the watchtower

About the role of observatories in decision-making processes in education

What is an observatory? It is a "place" from which to watch at a distance, a place to think about what is going on below (or above), a place where information is gathered and knowledge is developed and disseminated, a place designed to assist decision-making.

The observatory can be seen as a particular way of organising part of the decision-making process. It concentrates information about the system in one place and analyses it from a privileged point of view that is shielded from the rest of the system.

In what follows, I would like to question the three main assumptions of the observatory logic. First, setting oneself above or beyond the system to observe it does not enhance our understanding of it, rather such a way of acting distorts our understanding. Second, accumulating information and knowledge about the system in one place is not an efficient way of improving the exchange of information. Third, concentrating much of the development of knowledge about the system in one place (or organisation) is counterproductive in the decision-making process.

Give me a ladder and I’ll tell you which way to go

One of the underlying methodological beliefs of science has been that the scientist should adopt a neutral position with respect to what is being observed. If the observer influences the experiment, he invalidates it. We now know that such a neutral position is an illusion. The observer is always a part of the experiment and inevitably influences its outcomes. Yet the observational paradigm continues to flourish as can be seen from the increasing number of observatories. The very nature of the observatory, seen as providing an outside perspective, is necessarily misleading because of the pretence of that perspective. The observatory is always an integral part of the decision-making process and the system at large. The work of the observatory and its “results” cannot be fully understood if we don’t consider that the observatory is part of the system it is observing and that its action necessarily affects that system.

Give me your information and I’ll tell you what you should know

Part of the work of an observatory is to gather information about the system. As almost all of the information about the workings of the system is initially elsewhere than in the observatory, different mechanisms have to be employed to bring in that information from throughout the system. The logic behind the choice of employing a specialised organisation for such work is that such a procedure is more efficient and easier to control. The choice of the observatory as a privileged place for collecting information necessarily leads to a dependence on the part all the actors on a centralised organisation to drive the exchange of information. What’s more, that exchange is centred on the observatory to the detriment of horizontal communication. This choice diminishes the capacity of other parts of the system to take the initiative to satisfy their own needs to gather and analyse information.

Let me do the learning for you and I’ll sell you bits of my knowledge

The observatory is also a privileged place for organisational learning. Learning? Sure! What else is the analysis carried out by the observatory on the basis of the information received from the different parts of the system? The observatory develops knowledge that is supposed to be of use to the rest of the system. It brings together experts in developing knowledge. The idea being that that knowledge can be more efficiently produced in this way and then it is transferred to the others. Knowledge is however not so easily transferred. It needs to be constructed by people rather than consumed. So relying on a specialised organisation is not an efficient way of developing knowledge across the system. It necessarily diminishes the capacity of the rest of the system to develop its own understanding of what is going on. It also tends to foster resistance to change on the part of those who see this knowledge as foreign to them.

Midwives to the unfolding future

It is not easy to imagine what a distributed knowledge structure would be like; one in which each actor gathers and shares information and each actor develops knowledge about the system and its workings with others. This difficulty may well lie in the way we see the system, its working and how we control it. We tend to sever the knowledge and the decision-making from the system. Decision-making, for example, is something we imagine we do to the system. What if the optimal direction to follow and the most effective means to follow it emerged from the system itself and not from what its managers decide? As indicated by theories about complexity and self-organising systems, the emergent properties occur spontaneously from the complexity of the system. If such were the case, instead of a small group “collecting” information and “taking” decisions, the role of each actor should be to sense and reveal the ever changing direction that the system seeks to follow and to enable that direction to unfold and develop with the help of the system itself. I will take up the idea of sensing the unfolding future and using the forces at play within the system to create the necessary conditions for that future to unfold in another article.

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise

See also "Leadership, information gathering and the future - What if we’ve got it wrong?"

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Created: October 18th, 2004 - Last up-dated: October 18th, 2004