Knowledge, the ens and the outs of it

BLACKLER, F., 1995. Knowledge, Knowledge Work and Organizations: An Overview and Interpretation. Organization Studies (Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co.KG.), 16(6), pp. 1020

Blackler compares more traditional organisational learning (KM) approaches to knowledge to newer theories of knowing and comes out rather in favour of the latter.

He starts by discussing theories that see knowledge as some version of : encultured, embrained, embodied, embedded or encoded. He argues that knowledge is seen as either belonging to people (through personal knowledge or know-how), social groups and processes or being encoded in symbols and that each of these is needlessly reductionist and cannot stand alone. He goes on to relate these to the knowledge economy and types of organisations, noting a shift toward embrained (knowledge intensive) and encultured (communication – intensive) types.

The discussion also covers the transformative nature of technology, not unlike earlier technological revolutions. Just as writing seemed to “kill living eloquence”, Blackler notes how ICT disrupts the traditional significance of traditionally valued types of knowledge. In a quite graphic metaphor, he states how technology is leading organisations to simultaneously implode into electronic codes and to explode into global networks.

The paper quotes reviews of theory emerging from anthropology, ethnomethodology and activity theory, and notes that knowledge is always constructed and transformed in use. Cognitions are likewise situated and collective. As such, the author thinks it is better to talk about knowing as a multidimensional phenomenon.

Blackler sees activity theory as a potentially useful in understanding this version of knowledge. The theory sees knowledge as dynamically interconnected and constructed from social interaction and practical collaboration. The work of Orr and Englestrom are quoted. Englestrom’s model of socially distributed activity systems are discussed :

Engestrom’s distributed activity system

The triangles represent the tensions and interactions that the individual deals with, and learns to cope with.

Blackler concludes that it is not helpful to focus on what types of knowledge are needed, but on how systems and activities are evolving to and changing as a result of globalisation and the march of technology. Interestingly, the communal narrative aspect of expanded, distributed activity systems, has relevance today in the uptake of social technologies. In this respect Blackler has shown a measure of foresight.

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