It’s time for a confession. When it comes to my thinking and practice as a knowledge mobiliser, I’m a bit of a magpie. I often spot shiny new ideas and insights and steal them for my own purposes. There’s nothing I love more than spotting an idea from another discipline or academic field and working out how it relates to the contexts I’m working in. And I’m sure I’m not the only one!
Last week I went to the Organisational Learning, Knowledge & Capabilities conference at the University of St Andrews which provided me with yet more food for thought and ideas to draw on. From the title, you’d think that this conference was tailor-made for knowledge mobilisation researchers and practitioners. It’s got knowledge and learning in the title, after all! But closer inspection gave me some cause for concern. For a start, there was the 1800 word ‘extended abstract’ which need to be submitted by anyone wanting to present at the conference. For someone more used to the idea of producing short, catching summaries of their work, this seemed a little odd… And then there was the highly theorised and theoretical nature of many of the papers being presented. I’ll admit to being fairly baffled by some of the titles alone! There was also the fact that many of those theories have been developed in business in management studies and often focus on the private rather than public sector and on organisational structures and systems. This all left me wondering how much I would understand or be able to join in with and what on earth I would be able to steal. It all felt just a little outside my usual comfort zone.
Thankfully, I needn’t have worried. During the conference I found some real gems which connected with my work and gave me lots of ideas to play with. On day one, there was the keynote presentation by Helen Verran who talked about the need to nurture ‘ontological disconcertment’ in order to help organisations to learn. This is essentially about organisations (and groups of people) spotting and problematising taken-for-granted ways of doing things and seeing the world in relation to 5 ‘epistemic’ questions: what is known? how is it known? how is it known to be known? why is it worthy? how are knowers figured? The links to my own work – which is about asking questions to help groups of people share what they know – were immediately apparent. And thanks to Helen I now had another way of thinking about and explaining what I was up to and why.
On day two Paul Duguid’s keynote proved to be equally inspiring as he treated us to a historical tour of the rise of machine logic and erosion of mental labour. What I found fascinating (and a bit baffling) was the historical and contemporary separation of thought and action. Paul invited us to consider this 1767 quote on civil society by Adam Ferguson:
“Many mechanical arts succeed best under a total suppression of sentiment and reason, and ignorance is the mother of industry. Manufactures prosper most when the mind is least consulted and where the workshop may be considered as an engine, the parts of which are men”
Many of us in the audience were struck by the parallels in the organisations we work with – where people are increasingly expected to follow protocols, rules and procedures rather than their own thoughts and intuition. Although this can undoubtedly be one way of reducing variation in health and social care, for instance, I was left wondering about the cost of this approach in terms of people’s capacity to reflect and learn together, and how I could help organisations to reverse the trend towards ‘machine logic’.
Other concepts I was introduced to at the conference included ‘liminality’ and ‘rhizome’. Liminality was a term developed by anthropologists to refer to the space between one state of being and another (e.g. child to adult, student to graduate). In organisational studies liminality and the idea of being ‘betwixt and between’ has been borrowed as a way of framing ‘in between’ organisational roles – like knowledge brokers. Rhizome is a philosophical concept (as well as a biological one) which refers to a fluid, non-hierarchical space where knowledge flows in multiple directions and takes multiple forms and from which innovative ideas and practice can emerge. I found both concepts interesting and potentially useful in thinking about and understanding my work as a knowledge mobiliser.
So what is the moral of this post? I guess it’s that it’s worth stepping outside your comfort zone and usual frame of reference every now and then! The conference certainly gave me lots of food for thought and ideas to use in my work. Even though the connections might not seem obvious at first, and the ideas and concepts might not be presented in a way we are used to, I think it’s worth staying open-minded and magpie-like if we want to push our knowledge mobilisation thinking and scholarship forward.