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Using technology to support different forms of knowledge

December 13th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

I am ever more interested in how we can use technologies for knowledge development and sharing. In terms of research I think we need to bring together ideas and insights from different academic and research communities. Although there has been a traditional of discourse between those working in education and technology developers, this is less so when it comes to ideas about organisational learning and different forms of knowledge.

I have just read an interesting paper by Bengt-Ake Lundvall, Palle Rasmussen and Edward Lorenz on ‘Education in the Learning Economy: a European Perspective’. Let me first say I have always been sceptical about such terms as ‘learning economy’ and ‘knowledge economy ‘which seem to be too often bandied about as a mantra, rather than with any exact meaning. But I would agree with the authors observation that knowledge is becoming obsolete more rapidly than before so that employees have to learn and acquire new competencies. the authors say “It makes a major difference whether economic growth is seen as being fuelled by investments in codified scientific and technological knowledge, or whether it is seen as being driven by learning processes resulting in a combination of codified and tacit knowledge.”

International comparisons tend to focus on the first measure,. looking, for example at expenditure on research and development (R&D) and at the number of science and technology graduates. The latter perspective – captured by the term the learning economy –they say,  “can be seen in work focusing on the way informal networking relations, practical problem-solving on the job, and investments in lifelong learning contribute to competence building.”

At the heart of their argument is the nature of different forms of knowledge. They propose “a taxonomy of knowledge where it is divided into four categories (Lundvall & Johnson, 1994):

  • Know-what refers to knowledge about ‘facts’. Here, knowledge is close to what is normally called information – it can be broken down into bits and communicated as data.
  • Know-why refers to knowledge about causality nature, in the human mind and in society. This kind of knowledge is important for technological development in science-based industries.
  • Know-how refers to the ability to do something. It may be related to the skills of artisans and workers. But actually it plays a role in all economic activities, including science and management.
  • Know-who involves information about who knows what and who knows what to do as well as the social ability to cooperate and communicate with different kinds of people and experts.

Lundvall, Rasmussen and Edward Lorenz point to important differences in the degree to which these four categories of knowledge can be codified and in how education systems are affected by the degree of codification. the main point of their paper is to look at how traditional schoolings systems have become isolated from society and how the organisation into subjects and disciplines fails to maestro the needs of how we are developing and using knowledge. they also point to dramatic difference sin work organisation and opportunities for work based learning in different countries in Europe concluding that “Educational principles and cultures focusing on collaboration, interdisciplinarity and engagement with real-life problems are needed to prepare people for flexible and innovative participation in the economy and society.”

They do not deal with the issues of how we are using technology for learning  and knowledge development although they acknowledge that “data bases can bring together know-what in a more or less user friendly form”. Interestingly they piontyt0 to “the failure of IBM, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard to develop management information systems that could substitute for ‘the art of managing’ ” despite considerable investment and incentives to do so,
Traditional, Technology Enhanced Learning has focused on the know what and know-why. There has been little attention on the know how. yet it is this form of knowledge which is perhaps the most important within many enterprises and is changing most rapidly.  True, we have access to increasing numbers of know-how videos. yet we have possibly failed to develop pedagogical and learning approaches to how to use video and audio in an active sense. We tend to use it in the old English pedagogic sense of ‘watching Nellie’ rather than in any thought through way. and even though the web allows us to find people, their is only limited linkages to knowing who does what well, and even less to “the social ability to cooperate and communicate with different kinds of people and experts.”

Can social networking fill such a gap? Once more my feeling is that it can, but only to a limited extent. Social networki9ng allows us to tell what we are doing and what we are thinking. recommender systems allow the development of patterns. Yet they lack the idea of purpose and intent.

There are many instances of exchange of knowledge through different platforms in communities of practice. equally companies like CISCO or IBM have set up platforms to promote the process of turning tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge though for example podcasts and other companies such as Shell-BP have established extensive wikis for the same purpose. However these initiatives fail to ‘scale=down’ for use in smaller enterprises. One of the issues may be that of fragmentary knowledge and the difficulty of how we can scaffold fragments of knowledge gained through practice – or know how = into wider knowledge bases, which necessarily have to build on purpose and context.

Furthermore, looking at practice in smaller enterprises, the nature of collaboration and social exchange becomes critical, Lundvall, Rasmussen and Lorenz cite the work of Marshall (1923), “who was concerned to explain the real-world phenomenon of industrial districts, (and) emphasised the local character of knowledge. He found that specific specialised industries were concentrated in certain regions and that such industrial districts remained competitive for long historical periods.”

So another issue is how to support that local character of knowledge – and indeed to rethink what local might mean in a connected world.

(More to come in a later post)

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