Monday, 12 October 2015

Managing Knowledge: It’s all in people’s heads!

"It’s all in people’s heads!"
"Software is developed or engineered, it is not manufactured in the classical sense"
(Pressman, 2000)
"Someone had to spend a hundred million to put that knowledge in my head. It didn’t come free."(Curtis et al., 1988)
In an attempt to address the question of how to structure and organize high-tech development we needed to review assumptions surrounding the idea of systems. It is apparent that in spite of over decades of computer based development and innovation the development of high tech systems remains something of a mix of art and science. The question remains; how should we (as product or technology managers) go about fact-finding, specification, solution design, implementation and maintenance in the current era? Few social or organizational laws hold in all but the most general sense and even those laws are subject to change due to the flux of generations and capabilities in the technological environment. Opportunities are brief, specific skills and knowledge go out of date; markets and platforms rise and dominate quickly only to be overtaken by other newer systems.

Evidently knowledge is a crucial resource and one that it seems necessary to understand of itself and manage somehow. Theories of knowledge may therefore offer a way of getting to grips with how to manage it in teams or organisational settings. Epistemology is the study of theories of knowledge, of understanding how we know what we know, and further, of understanding how such knowledge is justified if at all.

Object Mediated Knowledge and Learning

The Russian psychologist Vygotsky (developmental psychology) considered all learning, or as he put it ‘development,’ to involve mediating interaction, transitional objects, before knowledge can be internalised. (Kaptelinin and Nardi, 2006) p48 The interaction between our ‘self’ and an object is, in a fundamental way, a physical experience. Different objects mediate the learning experience and knowledge in fundamentally different ways. For example a spreadsheet is not a direct substitute for a physically printed list of names. Our experience learning, using and working with both is different. This is not to say that one form is more useful than another, it is just very different. The phenomena we experience with a list on a wall chart are quite different to that when a list is presented in a spreadsheet or via slides. The quality of learning, knowledge and understanding will always be subtly different (not necessarily better or worse) depending on the objects and interactions we bring into the process of learning.

Figure: Zone of proximal development

Vygotsky’s theory of knowledge and learning mediated by objects was adapted in the 1980s and applied as a method for creating thoughtful and reflective descriptions of (dynamic) human activity systems. Activity Theory (AT) as it was termed is grounded in this theory of object-mediated learning, and it balances the view of a system as an ensemble of technical artifacts with the view that it is also a social construction. Simply put AT offers a balanced presentation of objects and tools, social structure (community, rules, division of labour), the role of the individual (subject); all with the goal of effecting change in the work; developing a new object to achieve some desired outcome.