The knowledge trap

16th April 2004 at 01:00
New ways of thinking won't be much use if the utilisation of learning is stuck in the machine age, says Gordon Wallace

On the face of it, everyone seems to have gone large on exactly the same prospectus. Whether it's Jack McConnell or Scottish Enterprise, the universities or the Confederation of British Industry, the messages are remarkably similar. Scotland, it is said, has to develop a culture which is more enterprising and entrepreneurial.

Heard it before? Likely to hear it again (and again) in 2004? Most certainly. What you are also likely to hear is the equally familiar mantra for achieving this fundamental change in society - an inventory of needs firmly based on learning and knowledge transfer.

However, among the calls for more skills development, more business start-ups, more centres of excellence and more spin-out companies, you are less likely to hear about structure and how outdated structures - especially in the corporate world - are responsible for squandering knowledge, delaying innovation and wasting resources. Until we sort out the way structure frequently gets between the acquisition of knowledge and its effective utilisation, then everything else is akin to whistling in the wind.

Until the early part of last century, the utilisation of knowledge was done within structures largely unchanged since the days of the Scottish Enlightenment. These structures were built on Newtonian science which viewed everything, including human beings, as machines that were capable of being stripped down, their wonky parts repaired or replaced, then put together again in the expectation of them returning to normal working.

It was a machine model ideally suited to the machine age, and we reaped handsome rewards from it. Consequently it was embraced by institutions, businesses and professionals alike, and generated a gestalt still active today, even if the machine age it grew out of is no longer with us. Moving around corporate organisations today, whether they be colleges or companies, you would think Einstein had never existed.

Einstein showed us that Newton was superannuated science. Instead of seeing everything as machines, he explained events in terms of their interconnectedness, systems which were often complex and difficult to comprehend but always adaptive to change and to levels of energy.

This represented a quantum leap in knowledge and understanding, but one which has so often perished on the rocks of past beliefs and a reluctance to take on new models of corporate organisation. As a result, the effective utilisation of knowledge is inhibited, risk is magnified, resources are squandered and hesitation and fear become routine reactions to even the simplest tasks.

True, most large organisations have flattened their structures, taken out layers and done cosmetic things with their image in line with the management gurus' advice. But essentially they remain welded to an outdated machine-age model. Your local general hospital probably provides the best example of this. There is a department for practically every part of the human body, and few indications of them working meaningfully together. Ask patients if you have any doubt about it.

Even psychiatry has a separate unit despite available knowledge that body and mind are intrinsically linked and what we eat has palpable effects on how we think. At a time when less qualified students entering universities are experiencing difficulties with concentration and studying at the required rates, is the available knowledge connecting food and learning to be denied for ever?

Einstein defined things in terms of energy, which is what should be imparted through learning to individuals engaging with programmes of education and training. In turn this energy is expected to transfer to the organisation the individual works for.

Assuming that learning programmes are entirely relevant to needs, then if the energy generated is dissipated to no measurable effect, it probably means the organisation itself is at fault.

Operationally, it has the wrong structure which militates against the effective utilisation of knowledge and remains fixed within an obsolescent machine-age model. Until the concept of adaptive systems replaces machine-age thinking in our corporate structures we are unlikely to see any tangible move towards the enterprise society we are all being exhorted to bring about.

Gordon Wallace is a trainer and writer on business education and training, and was head of training and enterprise at a Glasgow college.

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