Knowledge, power and network turbulence

My friend Jon Husband writes about the turbulence caused to traditional ways of managing by networked people: Knowledge power and an historic shift in work and organizational design

I was struck this morning by his citing of some of the established management models, for example the Hay one for job evaluation:

1.  Know-how (input) – knowledge and skills acquired through education and experience.

2.  Problem-solving (throughput) – the application of the said knowledge to problems encountered in the process of doing the work.

3. Accountability (output)- the level and type of responsibility a given job has for coordinating, managing or otherwise having impact on an organization’s objectives.

I always feel discomfort when I see these things. They have a superficial logic  to them, that initially makes me think I must be stupid not to see these deep truths about even this simple aspect of work. And then after a pause, I just gasp at the dreadful banality. Management literature is just awash with these lists and they contribute to a whole way of talking that strips life of its eccentricity and richness. At its worst, it is the language of the abusive bureaucrat – you just know that for all the protocols they spout, there will be a whole shadow side of their personality acting out all sorts of strangeness.

Jon articulates part of the problem here:

These methods set out a fundamental, foundational assumption about the nature of knowledge. They assume that knowledge and its acquisition, development and use is relatively quite stable, that it evolves quite slowly and carefully and that knowledge is based on an official, accepted taxonomy – a vertical arrangement of information and skills that are derived from the official institutions of our society

He goes on to show how flawed those assumptions are. Makes lots of sense to me.

Hat tip: Harold Jarche

3 thoughts on “Knowledge, power and network turbulence

  1. Jon Husband

    The most pernicious aspect is that it’s not JUST management literature.

    The examples used are just the top, very superficial layer of a method of using semantic “scales” to define work accountabilities, roles in solving problems and “freedom to act’ in a given role, etc. This and the other almost-identical major methods are used by 90+% of the Fortune 1000, and yours and my and most other governments.

    They are what is at the heart of organizational structure(s) everywhere, and much of what we call management science and the accepted models for competency in managing projects, plans and people are directly related to the stringent (and banal) definitions in these hierarchic semantic scales.

    They’ve been in widespread use for 60+ years, and are central, I think, to the embedded-ness and acceptance of hierarchy as ‘just the way things are’ in today’s world.

  2. David Holzmer


    Thanks so much for this very sharp The-Emperor-Is-Wearing-No-Nomenclature commentary. It’s spot on and I can’t help but think that Foucault would be grinning from ear-to-ear.

    I am also reminded of something I recently read by Mats Alvesson on the distinction between explicit and tacit knowledge. Alvesson’s point was that even this quite-common distinction is meaningless since–similar to Mr. Husband’s point–this thing we think of as knowledge is just too dynamic and interdependent to be neatly categorized into the “verbal” and “nonverbal”.

    Now, not that I disagree with Mr. Alvesson or Mr. Husband, but I will add that to a certain and very limited extent I believe such distinctions can, at times, be useful as teaching tools and helping others to get their head around otherwise slippery abstractions. However–as you nicely point out above–such labels generally become just another method of control when presented as “The Way Things Really Are”.

  3. David Clark

    Jon this is really interesting but I want to KNOW the better way!!!! Seriously I do!!! Because I agree – how can we explain to other a level of expertise of knowledge in a better way



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