17 May 2009

Creating Knowledge Cultures - Post 6

The big advantage to splitting a paper like this up is:
  1. You can digest each part before moving on, and
  2. If you fell asleep during the last post, hopefully now you are wide awake to get stuck in to this exciting chapter on the ingredients that contribute to “bottom-up” culture theory. :-)
I hope you enjoy the next few posts as much as I did investigating them. In reality they are far from forming a definitive list, but with a grasp on these key concepts, you will begin to build a toolbox of concepts that you can use in your team, department or entire organisation.

5. The central ingredients (part 1)
Distributed Cognition
Distributed cognition is defined as the distribution of cognitive labour among a group toward a common goal (Hutchins, 1991). Much the same as the distribution of labour, distributed cognition, however, has received much less attention in the literature (Ibid, p.284).

While researchers have moved forward within their own fields - social interaction in anthropology and cognitive learning in cognitive psychology and neuro-science - applying the two together is a relatively new endeavour.

Since the first wave of knowledge management back in the 1980s (Tuomi, 2002), authors like Liebowitz, Beckman (1998, p.16) and Clarke (2001, p.189) followed these thoughts about corporate memory and concepts like know-how, know-why and know-what. Liebowitz and Beckman's definition of corporate memory include the concept of "professional intellect" which attempted to include tacit areas of skills, creativity and meta-knowledge about how knowledge should be contextually applied.

Citing the works of Bougon, Weick, Binkhorst and Daft over the two decades to 1995, Tuomi summarises that “this research highlighted the fact that organizational knowledge is not something that can be objectively recorded and stored in databases; instead, organizational knowing is an active process where people try to make sense of their environment.” (Tuomi, 2002, p.6)

The concept of distributed cognition moves a step beyond this. Based on the latest advances in cognitive psychology but applied to a social (organisational) or anthropological (national) context, distributed cognition is not a new learning method, but a rethink of how we see individuals and the way they learn both individually and in groups.

In distributed cognition, groups are seen as cognitive systems, capable of adaptive responses to changes in their environment (Hutchins, 1996, p.380).

For this reason the concepts of distributed cognition and learning organisations are intimately joined and some (Hutchins, 1991, Argyris and Schön, 1996) agree with the point that while single and double loop learning certainly can be witnessed at the explicit level, more often than not, organisational learning (and unlearning) happen at the deep and often shared cognitive level. Hutchins (1996) goes further again and explains how organisations not only remember as a group, but also re-organise and adapt themselves in such a way as to improve performance using the same cognitive process – sometimes despite a managerial preference for a more traditional, hierarchical style leadership.

The result is a more organic view of the organisation which, when applied to the traditional views of organisations (and the link between structure and culture), reveals the flaws in policies based on the assumptions that top-down thinking can engender.

Learning Organisations
Organisational learning speaks of far more than employee training and skills management programs.

Organisational learning can be described as the way firm build and manage knowledge and processes around their activities to contextually adapt and develop organisational efficiency (Dodgson, 1993, p.377). It involves the concept of having all members of an organisation participate in a process of double-loop learning that encourages self-examination, personal responsibility and share first-rate information about their roles with others (Argyris, 2001).
“Learning organizations are skilled at five main activities: 1. systematic problem solving, 2. experimentation with new approaches, 3. learning from their own experience and past history, 4. learning from the experiences and best practices of others, and 5. transferring knowledge quickly and efficiently throughout the organisation. Each is accompanied by a distinctive mind-set, tool kit, and pattern of behaviour." (Garvin, 1998)

Robinson describes two different strands of research on organisational learning (Robinson, 2001). The Normative strand is concerned with the management of outcomes with respect to organisational improvement, as opposed to the Descriptive strand which holds a social and cognitive psychological focus on how organisations actually learn. She notes that the work of Argyris and Schön straddles these strands by providing a theory and practice of intervention (normative) plus a rigorous and useful theory of action (descriptive) which we will go further into here.

Organisational Memory
While organisations without individuals are nothing but a pile of paper and databases, it is recognised that organisations as a collective do have the capacity to learn and store information. Rules, procedures, technologies, beliefs and of course cultures are preserved over time and despite turnover of personnel (Levitt and March, 1988, p.326). Huber (1996, p.148) notes that poor organisational memory is far more complex than can be explained by the view of employees as “repositories for organisational information” and Levitt and March explain that the learning process is further complicated by the ‘simultaneously adapting behaviour’ of other agents in the process (1988, p.331).

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