The Fifth Dimension

· Uncategorized

I recently addressed an international gathering of librarians and information scientists on the subject of knowledge management.[1] In researching my subject, I discovered other issues that seemed in need of commentary before this audience. One was the profession of librarianship itself, though quite out of scope for my presentation.

I am not trained in, or an expert in Information Science, though I have held a library card from the time I was eight years old. So, if I am deficient in academic credentials, I think I can speak with some confidence from the user perspective. A few decades in business and government have added to my understanding of information and knowledge in the field of general management.

My experiences suggest that workplaces are encountering some significant challenges. Frequently, organizations are challenged to effectively establish and maintain links between what they are doing and what they want to, or should be doing. They want to ensure that work activities bear a direct and unambiguous relationship to organization purposes.

This challenge emerges from the disassociated way in which many of us work. We are becoming more and more insular. W are all becoming Jane and Joe Fridays, sometimes leaving never so much as footprints on the beach that others might follow.

Despite all sorts of thinking and talking about the “modern workplace,” senior managers still see institutional organization and management pretty well as 1964 Max Weber did in 1964. His studies[2] described how bureaucracies – which were invented by the military – were really helpful in defining roles and task assignment while ensuring minimal overlap and duplication.

Weber would have been surprised at the efforts made today to make the hierarchies illustrated in annual reports work, despite the overwhelming evidence that vibrant organizations get that way, and remain that way, due to informal structures and processes.

Elaborate hierarchical division of labour directed by explicit rules, impersonally applied is not a bad thing. What is a bad thing is that the hierarchies that Weber described excelled at top to bottom command, control and communication. They were, and are, frightfully bad at horizontal relations. To put it another way, hierarchies were good at setting down roles and reporting, but stank and getting people to work side by side. 

Consider the world these bureaucracies operate within. We’ve quickly emerged (or evolved perhaps) into the “Knowledge Age” which is being acted out in something called “The Global Society.” Advances in information technology and quite new practices and  trends in commerce, communications and human behavioural patterns have turned a lot of what we long took for granted upside down. 

I am going to suggest that these concerns, and these emerging ideas and trends, are more the subject of rank and file cafeteria conversations than board rooms on mahogany row. I am of that view because I sense a clear disconnect between military structures and processes and the very real needs of knowledge organizations in a global society. 

Where we need adaptive and holistic organization structures and processes, we have better and better defined jobs and vertical relationships. We excel at defining jobs and performance expectations, and are somewhat good at assessing the degree of personal achievement within those definitions. We are less capable at designing work within the context of the organization and its needs. And as we are not very good at that, we really aren’t very good at determining just who the real contributors are. 

That is the theory part of what I have to say. Now I want to move much more directly into the practice of information and knowledge  management – the “science” of these subjects if you will, and talk about the need for another dimension. 

Everyone is familiar with the dimensions of length, breadth and depth. In the industrial age our world was bound by bricks and mortar and working with our hands. The product was tangible, the processes were evident for all to see, and the organizational structures were quite visible. We also speak of the time dimension, a variable a whole lot more troublesome than those former ones, but still something that we could observe, and track, and manage. 

Nowadays there is a workplace dimension beyond tangibility. This dimension is fluid, ever-changing and often invisible. We know it for its effects, but we are not at all clear on what it is and how it works. Because we can’t box it, some call it “fluffy.” 

In Weber’s organizations, every function was headed by a director, manager or senior military officer. Even today, these “heads” resonate with the so-called “elements of capitalism” we learned about decades ago in economics class. Those elements were land, labour, capital and entrepreneurship. Everything else was secondary. 

Functions not directly linked to the “Fab Four” are defined as “support,” “corporate” or even worse “overhead.” They are often grudgingly referred to as “the costs of doing business.” Many managers suffer them unhappily, not taking the time to understand them and use them productively. Consequently, they hold second level positions, are rarely consulted on strategic issues and are often under-funded and poorly housed. This sad situation is often experienced by many in information and knowledge functions. These functions are sometimes justified only on the basis of externally established legal and policy requirement, such as maintaining records for risk management. 

In the knowledge age, this mentality is not sustainable. It can have dire consequences for all kinds of enterprises and for wide population ranges if the institution is a state or national government. 

If we can agree that the times are changing – that indeed they have changed; and if we can agree that we are encountering disconnects between what we need to be doing and what we are doing, what then can we as information and knowledge professionals do about it? 

This is the “knowledge age.” This is our time. We should be in the clover! We are in the post-industrial, knowledge-enthused period of human existence, ready to leap forward to a new unknown plane that we can’t even yet articulate. Our phones should be ringing off the hook. We should be sitting at the executive board table, having been called in for senior level consultations.  We should be the seers of the knowledge age. But we are not. For whatever reason, information and knowledge professions are not seen as instrumental to organizational success in the knowledge age. That is something we should be concerned about. 

Many activity domains are experiencing conditions and situations unprecedented in their scope, ferocity and frequency. As our agents and institutions try to cope, they test, prototype, pilot and partner. They seek new delivery vehicles. They form new structures and define new rules. Some of these organizations venture outside the corporate walls for the first time, linking up with customers and competitors and forming alliances, or at least communication channels.  Sometimes these tasks are managed by unlikely champions – such as those responsible for business technology. 

Information technology is as we all know – part of the solution – but also is often part of the problem. Conventional wisdom now holds that if the organization can only gather all its historical and operational data in one place, it will know exactly what it is doing, and what it should do next. A data universe will never, in and of itself, provide intuitive leaps, right out of left field insights and provocative suggestions about trends and relationships. At a time when we should be using far-sight, we still dwell on gone-before. 

It is only humans that can observe, record, analyse, understand and brief on the issues of the day. But these humans need training because these are very special skills, and they need specialized tools that can work with multi-layered matricies of knowledge. Above and beyond all that, there is a need for subject experts: people who know not only what is known, but what is not known. People who, when they don’t know, know where and how they can find out. And when they find out, these people can package and deliver that intelligence in a form that can be used. Those very special enthusiasms and abilities, in my view, are the domain of information science. 

Some of those iron-clad hallowed models that guide business and government need to be taken out and shook. There is a greater than ever need for coherent organizational knowledge. There is a greater than ever need for continuous learning and improvement, and a total re-visitation of the notions of capability, competence and sustainability. There is a need to re-invent teaching and learning, and become much better at using new tools, new methods, and new ways of relating to each other. 

Perhaps in this age and in these circumstances, our organizations need some missionary work.  How about we in information and knowledge science share our post-Weberian understandings and insights about fifth dimension workplaces?

  [Comments on this paper would be appreciated. The accompanying slie deck is loaded on SLIDESHARE.]


[1]            The World Criminal Justice Library Network

[2]            The Theory of Social and Economic Organization

%d bloggers like this: