October 02, 2006

The Rising Tide of Knowledge Populism

I’ve recently thought about writing a book, or at least a few well placed articles, on the subject of knowledge populism, of which evidence is all around us.

Like political populism, which flourished in the US mid-west at the turn of the 20th century, the knowledge populism we see is surely a tricky subject-containing elements both malignant and glorious. It is a natural outgrowth of the world-wide democratization of knowledge and information that is roiling our world in so many ways.

In doing some reading for this subject for a dual talk Tom Davenport and I are doing later in the month, I found some books for you all worth commenting on.

The first is Infotopia, by Cass Sunstein who is a law school professor in Chicago, and is also what I’d call a "public intellectual" i.e. someone willing to talk on subjects outside the technical details of their field, someone actually worth listening to. This book is quite good – it’s short, interesting, and with a real knowledge perspective. Its main theme is the need for deliberation - space and time to deliberate. Sunstein is particularly interested in how many users using the web have the potential to create valuable new knowledge.

Another interesting tome, is by Yochai Benkler, yet another law school guy (this one at Yale – what’s with these guys?). This book is called The Wealth of Networks and is sub-titled How Social Production transforms markets and freedom.

I’m not at all sure about the power of his argument concerning freedom but his arguments about social production are cogent and interesting - if a bit dry and based on neo-classic economics - which is tidy but not real. The book, like Sunstein's, is well written and is also really about knowledge.

We are winning the race, fellow knowledge practitioners!

To butress this last point take a look at a World Bank report, released just a few months back called Where is the wealth of Nations? Measuring Capital for the 21st Century.

While the bank researchers still conflate knowledge with human capital, at least they now acknowledge it as a powerful source of intangible wealth.

We have come quite a ways in this regard. Take a look at any economic reckoning of wealth just a few decades ago and there was no mention of any intangibles whatsoever. Now if we can only get accountants and finance people to see the light!! They will if they have Baruch Lev as a professor but he can’t teach everybody!

Posted by Larry Prusak at 10:28 PM | Permalink | TrackBacks (0)

March 19, 2006

A Tale of Two Books on Knowledge

Two rather important and quite different books have been published this week that should be of considerable interest to anyone who cares about the task of better understanding how knowledge works in this world.

The first, The New Argonauts : Regional Advantage in a Global Economy by AnnaLee Saxenian is published by Harvard University Press.

This is the first real empirical study on how knowledge-flows really work.

The author has done extensive research in how the Indian, Chinese, and Israelis study and work and learn in Silicon Valley and how they bring this knowledge back to their countries where it takes root in often spectacular fashion.

This migration of knowledge thru the medium of human capital is a very powerful force in the growing democratization of knowledge and is rarely analysed and documented with such power as Saxenian employs.

Saxenian is an economic geographer and is Dean of the best school in the US to study information and knowledge: the University of California at Berkeley. Saxenian has done her work throroughly, both in voluminous interviews and in telling stories mixed with analysis. She conveys very, very well just how local and social knowledge is, and how it gets transferred by groups who already share trust thru shared ethnicity.

Another stunning, though quite different knowledge book, is David Warsh's Knowledge and the Wealth Of Nations: A Story of Economic Discovery published by Norton.

Warsh is one of the very few economic journalists in the US who knows his theory as well as how the subject is practised.

This book is nothing les then an intellectual history of how the very idea of knowledge has re-entered economics (it was an important theme to Adam Smith but got lost in the later 20th century).

The book ends with a great discussion on the work of Paul Romer who has done the most to put knowledge into development thinking and explain it in a way that it will eventually find it sway into Freshman textbooks (if they still read).

If you are wondering why this is important to anyone besides academics or economists, its because once these ideas get established in mainstream disciplin es they gather momentum and begin to be taught in business schools. Until that happens the subject remains either a marginal activity or just one more thing consultants sell to bewildered managers.

Knowledge is far too important for this fate and Warsh explains just how it has risen, fallen and is rising again to take its place as a key concept in understanding the 21st Century.

Posted by Larry Prusak at 03:16 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBacks (0)

January 05, 2006

Lesser-Known, Must-Read KM Books for 2006

There are quite a few good books about KM and related practices that never receive much publicity and consequently are rarely seen by practitioners and have little impact on practice.

For those of you with a taste for theory and a little patience, however, there is much of value in these academic tomes. Here are some recent ones, all read by yours truly (I don’t watch TV or talk too much on planes so I get some reading done).

Knowledge, Institutions and Evolution in Economics by Brian Loasby. This is a very well written book by an economist(yes, some of them can write and even write well about knowledge). Loasby' lectures are focused on how knowledge as embedded in organizations can best be understood as an evolutionary phenomenon. He is right, too.

Architectures of Knowledge : Firms, Capabilities, and Communities by Ash Amin(an economic geographer, and Patrick Cohendet, an economist). This is a very good book, original and full of insights on the spaces of knowledge and learning to be found in society and in organizations. The chapter on "The Spaces of Knowing" is worth the price of the paperback edition, by itself. The book is very "cross-disciplinary" and rewards frequent reading (especially if you fly often).

Complex Knowledge : Studies in Organizational Epistemology by Haridimos Tsoukas. He is an abstract thinker and organizational theorist and these are his collected essays on knoweldge and learning. Tsoukas is quite influenced by complexity theory (but not in a silly or superficial way) and is a great believer in sense-making a-la Karl Weick [Sensemaking in Organizations, Making Sense of the Organization, and Managing the Unexpected: Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity]. Don’t miss the chapter entitled "Do We Really Understand Tacit Knowledge." It’s the best one in the book.

Finally, for those of you with a taste for theory grounded in cases there is a very good introduction to KM by Donald Hislop entitled Knowledge Management in Organizations: A Critical Introduction. This is far more then just a text for MBAs, etc. It’s a critical synthesis based on much reading and observing. Not always sympathetic to our more simple practices, it’s a great text to give to someone new to the subject who is smart and can't stand most business books (Sue Newell's Managing Knowledge Work would be a great choice too).

All of these books are new and can easily be found on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. There are other such tomes around that I'd be happy to discuss if anyone is interested. Let me know and have a great 2006!

Posted by Larry Prusak at 02:50 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBacks (0)

September 28, 2005

The Babson Knowledge Blog

Welcome to the Babson knowledge blog! For those who don’t have this knowledge, Babson College has a research center on knowledge management (the Working Knowledge Research Center, or WKRC) with some well-known researchers and about 25 sponsors who are collectively world leaders in managing knowledge and learning.

We hope to use this channel for a variety of purposes that are different from what we do with our existing ones. First, it’s a nice way to talk informally about knowledge and learning topics—there is a lot that doesn’t fit into a research paper format. Secondly, we hope that a variety of people who are connected to the WKRC will get involved—researchers, sponsors, and assorted friends. We definitely don’t want this to be “The Tom and Larry (Prusak) Show.” Third, it’s a vehicle for getting some of our ideas into the world at large, without being subject to the tyranny of Harvard Business Review or Sloan Management Review editors.

We also hope to explore the role of blogging as a knowledge management medium. Now, maybe it’s just because I’m an old fart, but I have been somewhat skeptical about the business value of blogging in general. I know that not many of them get very much attention, so what’s the point of writing them? And if they do get attention, it may be for the wrong reasons. Most organizations get very nervous about having employees blog about company strategies, products, or services.

However, I was intrigued by something that Bill Ives, a former Accenture colleague, knowledge management devotee, and big blogger, said to me recently. He pointed out that it doesn’t really matter whether anyone reads your blog or not. He views it as a device for personal knowledge management—a way to keep track of ideas that you’d like to follow up on or return to at some point. And if someone else is interested, so much the better.

Blogs also don’t have to go outside the company. As I write this entry I am flying from Australia back to Boston. Sitting next to me is the CEO of an advertising agency. He said that his company uses intranet blogs for internal information sharing. Experts in some aspect of their business—say, search engine optimization—are expected to write blogs on what they know and what they learn. His company is distributed around the world, and intranet blogs have been an effective way to transfer knowledge. By the way, his company bans individual employee blogs. We’re going to see whether we can do a case study on this company’s approach.

Let us know if you like this blog, or if you’d like to contribute something. We’ll also try to let you know about other knowledge-oriented blogs that might be worth perusing. See you in the blogosphere.

Posted by Tom Davenport at 01:15 PM | Permalink | TrackBacks (1)