All Life Is Problem Solving

Joe Firestone’s Blog on Knowledge and Knowledge Management

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National Governmental Knowledge Management: A Guest Reply By Richard Vines

July 26th, 2008 · 1 Comment


I think your twin posts on knowledge management and its possible relevance to national governments raise some very interesting and creative ideas that warrant a serious pause for thought.

I have just been in the United States and revisited the Washington Mall, and the axes of the Mall including the White House, the Congress and the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials. And, then from a local rise, I was able to look out over these pillars of American democracy – where I also learned for the first time the remarkable story of the stitching together of the families of General Washington and General Lee through marriage down the generations. The vantage point was of course the Arlington Cemetery. I had no idea that this piece of land actually once belonged to General Lee’s family, and that he spent the latter part of his life playing such an active role in reconciling the country after the shocking civil war. What a strange mixing of narratives there has been over the years.

So, I have returned to Australia with grand memories of these iconic places that are testament to so much of the fabric of the modern world- and the potency of the principles of the “separation of powers” and the rigourous critique of and integration of policies that ensues from this separation.

In your post, you have been both provocative and brave to have posed a very fundamental question for KM. Yours is an intimidating question for a domain of practice which still has not developed any real sense of coherence, or identity. Here is your question repeated.

With the development of formal KM in the late 1980s, however, the question arises as to how to organize KM activities in National Governments, and also how to decide which agencies, and inter-agency projects and programs can benefit from a formal KM structure and which can continue to be handled informally, through individual efforts and self-organizing group structures?

And, of course, first off, you discuss whether the question should be asked in the first place. We are, of course, free to do nothing about what KM may or may not have to contribute to our respective national governments. But, I agree with you – why should we not advance a cause that is grounded deeply in our emergent understandings of what might become a “knowledge domain of practice”. Why should we not encompass notions of emergence and at the same time declare what might be possible through KM?

It is true perhaps that your preferred views about the knowledge domain are grounded steeply in the traditions of your own national culture. For example, it is fascinating that your projected vision for KM within national governments (the third option) is premised on a foundation of the separation of powers. A national KM strategy that was both centralized and decentralized and one which reported to the legislative and not to the Executive arm of government.

But beyond this supra level of governance, implementing a national KM intervention by embedding the separation of powers could do much to strengthen the wisdom arising from the edges of complex adaptive systems. For example, what would it be like if we slowly developed a whole new cadre of bureaucrats who were well versed in what it takes to generate and implement public policy with a real sense of complexity and network theory and practice?

Quite frankly, Joe, I think the ideas you outline are worthy of the highest scrutiny. Surely the skeptics would have to agree that such an approach could do much to strengthen both the coherence and the adaptive capacity of individuals and agencies and national Governments as a whole? Of course such an approach would not be without its risks and its skeptics. I can hear the financial fudiciarists groaning already. But, I can also see the potential for reform and innovation. I wonder how long it might be before we might have “knowledge fudiciarists” and what their work might be?

Whilst reading your blog, I found myself thinking – how could such a model be adopted within a Westminster context? I wonder what might be the equivalent to the creation of a KM network (centralized and decentralized) that would report to American legislators. And, how would the mechanics of such an approach be implemented in Australia across seven states, where our population is so much smaller and where such an approach, because of our smallness, might have an unintended consequence of excessive bureaucratic intervention.

Thanks for the blogs, Joe. They show that when we write something down, what we write down can generate potentialities way beyond what we know. This is the mystery of cultural artifacts. I am sure President Washington, his wife and step-son would get a surprise if they were to look out over the city of Washington from the vantage point of what now is the Arlington Cemetery and see the pillars of US democracy reflected in the axes of the Mall and the cultural artifacts/monuments – including his own! But equally, I suspect he might also reflect on the importance of the continued commitment to the principles of openness required to achieve the necessary critique of policies that the separation of powers is designed to provide.

It is perhaps a lofty aspiration for KM to hitch a ride on these principles of governance, openness and critiquing across multiple levels of hierarchy in all open Governments. But, why not, given how fundamental we think the nature of knowledge is in relation to the expression of life diversity itself?

However, for these lofty aspirations to be deeply sustainable, they need to be grounded in a deep rooted theory and practice of knowledge itself. We have to keep reminding ourselves that KM is about context, networks, scrutiny and adaptability and not about political hierarchies, including political nationalism. This is a tall order and a worthy aspiration to keep committing to. I hope the potential for an emergent coalescence of ideas, including your own ideas, Joe, takes root.

Tags: Complexity · Epistemology/Ontology/Value Theory · KM Techniques · Knowledge Integration · Knowledge Making · Knowledge Management

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 The Empire Need Not Repeat // Aug 16, 2008 at 11:49 am

    […] KM Center than the one Dave criticized in his “Empire” posts. It is outlined here, here, and here. And it is based on the idea that a National KM Center organized in the way I proposed, would […]