Managing our not knowing
Wright, N. (2005) 'Managing our Not Knowing', News, Association for Management Education & Development, March, p15.
‘Isn’t it odd how easy this all sounds when I’ve found it so difficult to do in practice?’ This was the closing remark of one participant at a Knowledge Management (KM) conference I attended recently. The day was filled with impressive and inspiring accounts of outstanding success resulting from the KM interventions of those presenting. At times, the event had all the hallmarks of an evangelistic crusade, with passionate testimonies to the miraculous abounding. I noticed how most case studies depicted an entirely rational and benevolent organisational context with little, if any, emotional, psychological or relational turbulence.
The analogy with the miraculous is, therefore, significant in at least one key respect: such events are, by definition, exceptional. What most conference presenters didn’t acknowledge was that the examples cited were largely unrepresentative of day-to-day organisational experience. Reference to the mundane process of manoeuvring through political minefields and sifting through reams of reflection for nuggets of wisdom was conspicuous by its absence. This paradox intrigued me. If knowledge is linked integrally with learning, what is the underlying cost of censoring public knowledge so that only that regarded as acceptable and profit-able is revealed? What are the shadow sides of KM that are concealed and what do they, in turn, conceal organisationally?
I’ve been struck by Susie Orbach’s insights into social-psychodynamics, particularly her observations on The Need Not to Know (see Towards Emotional Literacy, 1999). I’ve also taken part in a number of KM learning reviews where questions have been tightly prescribed beforehand, thereby maintaining controlled focus but subconsciously excluding threads of exploration that might have proved embarrassing or threatening. If such defences are encountered but not acknowledged explicitly, KM will fail to provide a vehicle for genuine double-loop learning. It will be acceptable to review a project within its own terms of reference but more fundamental questions such as ‘was it the right project?’ or ‘what have been its wider impacts on the environment or community?’ will feel taboo and remain unaddressed.
One conference presenter did comment openly that experimental communities of practice in her organisation had turned into lobbying groups and had, therefore, ‘failed’. An wider organisational learning question might have been, ‘what does the fact of turning into lobbying groups reveal about the wider culture and climate in the organisation at that time?’ This deeper form of review may confront power structures, decision-makers, cultural assumptions and foundational policy and is one reason, therefore, why many KM practitioners will simply advise, ‘don’t go there’. What does ‘not going there’, however, achieve for the learning organisation? It does, admittedly, enable it to maintain a sense of safety and continuity in an otherwise unpredictable and often uncontrollable environment. Ironically, the cost of maintaining the defence may be that the organisation’s learning potential is curtailed and its vulnerability increased.
Managing our not-knowing is essentially about managing our anxiety. What I learned from the conference is that on the one hand, KM is a risky enterprise because it can touch on sensitive organisational issues but on the other hand, precisely when it surfaces such issues, its greatest potential for added value comes to the fore. KM at its best can provide important opportunities to ‘speak the unspeakable’, to extend knowledge boundaries by enabling participants to explore, articulate and make sense of organisational reality in all its uncensored fullness. The challenge for leaders and consultants is, therefore, how to maximise the benefits of such learning without retreating to our traditional safety zones when anxiety is experienced or encountered.