16 May 2009

Creating Knowledge Cultures - Post 5

“The real difficulty in changing any enterprise lies not in developing new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones” - John Mayand Keynes.

Today, in the 4th chapter of Creating Knowledge Cultures, I introduce a different approach to describing and understanding culture and begin to move towards how Knowledge Management can actually play a part in this process with it’s underpinnings in complexity theory and it’s openness to think beyond the logical positivism of the early and mid 20th century.

4. The new solution
Culture as cognitive process
With tongue planted firmly in cheek, Mezmer defines cognitive science as a branch of psychology that aims to figuratively find out how minds work without literally having to figure out how minds work (Mezmer, 2005). Although satirical, it is somewhat appropriate when considering the application of neural cognition to the problem of culture.

The step from symbolic language-based cognition to a connectionist approach takes the study of learning and sense making to a deeper level, on both the individual and social dimensions. Laszlo noted the similarities between the brain and organisations in their roles as information processing systems, (Hedberg, 1981, p.6), however, to go all the way and model a human brain, neuron-by-neuron, is simply implausible given our current level of ability in measuring and modeling brain function.

Instead, cognitive science makes no apologies and focuses on expanding beyond the traditional cultural theories by building a set of common characteristics of the human brain to act as models that explain the creation and use cultural schemas, both at the individual and social levels. It places meaning and cultural schemas in the minds of the society’s individuals, rather than in the symbols and artefacts those individuals create. In this way, it serves to solve the paradox of culture by describing an individual’s capacity to build these schemas based on shared and similar experiences with others in their group – providing the centripetal force – while allowing the individual’s schema to be built from the ground up based on their unique set of experiences, many shared with the group and possibly some exclusive to the individual – allowing differences between individuals and groups and also the ability to change over time - thus the centrifugal force (Hoecklin cited in Holden, 2002, p.24).

Of course, this does not dismiss the extra-personal realm of culture, just as Hutchins’ work on distributed cognition did not seek to dissolve the psychology of the individual (Strauss and Quinn, 1997, p.12,42). It simply serves to give a more holistic view of culture, being the interaction of regular occurrences both in the world and in the cognitive schemas people share (Ibid, 1997, p.7).

Unfortunately this disagreement between internalists and externalists has gone on for decades and despite all this insight, we should take note of this pragmatic but disheartening remark from Sperber:
“While cognitive science has come a long way in the last 15 years, the development of a common conceptual framework between the biological, cognitive, and social sciences is still a long way off.” (Sperber and Hirschfeld, 1999).
Bottom up
The key difference is in perspective. Facets of a particular culture are now seen as tacitly learned schemas that are built from the past experiences of the individuals entire experiences, including those within the organisation. These schemas serve to provide us with guides for interpretation, negotiation and appropriate action, just as before, however a more accurate understanding of an organisation's culture can only be gained through observing the actions and interplay of the groups individuals in a wide variety of circumstances - not by applying organisation-wide interpretations from the top-down.

How Knowledge plays a part
Holden reveals that the heartland of cross-cultural management is viewed in terms of knowledge management, organizational learning and networking at both local and global levels (Holden, 2002).

We have already mentioned the problems of ‘culture-as-difference’; however Holden suggests a new viewpoint on cross-cultural issues. By recognising that culture is an organisational resource, and building cultural management factors and processes into a corporate knowledge base, resolving international management problems becomes an organisational knowledge issue and can be dealt with in terms of its benefit to the firm.

This is a powerful insight, however it tends to under-rate the reverse impact ‘Culture as Cognition’ has on the concept of knowledge itself.

Knowledge is often defined as a type of deep, sometimes tacit, information summarised by terms like know-how, know who and know-what (Clarke, 2001, p.189). Nonaka (et al, 2001, p.14) defined knowledge as “a dynamic human process of justifying personal belief toward the ‘truth’”. However, knowledge is now defined as the complex and embodied effect of an individual’s life experience in its entirety. The positivistic distinction between tacit and explicit is gone and what was previously considered knowledge is simply the tip of the iceberg. The great depths of tacit knowledge now includes everything from higher thought to muscle memory to an unconscious awareness of the colour-change of ear-lobes when a person is embarrassed. Unconscious is the key here – or more correctly sub-conscious – and the tacit culture that derives from this type of knowledge is networked, tribal and fluid (Snowdon, 2002, p.103).

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