Henley: Knowledge and Relationships

February 25, 2010

Janine Nahapiet of Oxford University opens up the morning, after the obligatory speed networking and announcement that we have a mind reader with us (please). She is going to talk about what you need to know about your partners in development projects and the like along with the degree of transferability of western practice to other continents; what can we learn in unexpected ways from other places. Her recent work in African and the Middle East have led her to question the degree to which we would generalize knowledge.

Her central proposition is that a knowledge economy is a relationship economy, and the basic mechanisms of sharing are social processes. This will of course depend on trust and distrust, but the returns to trust are huge. Some statements: moving one point on a ten point scale on work place scale as the same effect as a 40% increase in pay; investment in social trust has an impact on growth rates (as much as education); 62% of adults in 20 countries reported a significantly lower level of trust in organisations than the previous year.

Three points or themes:

From human capital to social capital

Sees people, knowledge and connections (human, intellectual & social) elements. Social capital is the resources imbedded in networks. Social capital research draws on network theory and theories of community.

  • Structural dimension: how many ties, strong ties, weak ties
  • Relational: quality of the relationships
  • Cognitive: degree to which people share common language, stories and understanding

Social capital affects intellectual capital because it shapes the ability and motivation of people to access, exchange and combine their information, knowledge, expertise and experience. Looking at this field in the context of scenario building. Bridging and bonding are critical, with a simple network diagram in which Vera connects four networks with four connections, Alex also has four connections but they all know each other and work together. [This is 101 network theory, waiting for something novel to emerge]. [Well done David Gurteen who challenges the model and questions the quality of the linkage and the ability to assess it, but gets a non answer “the research shows ….”]. More on how the Vera may not be the most prominent [This really is 101 stuff and non-critical] Generation X/Y mentioned. [Why do intelligent people take crude classifications so seriously]

From node to network challenges for knowledge governance

Move to interdependence is key and questions of governance. In a network who is responsible? Who makes decisions? At the heart of governance is trust. [I am really surprised that she didn’t mention the Wikipedia here, its the most advanced case and with some real learning. She is obviously running out of time so jumps to the next section.

Unlikely innovators: from inside out to upside down

Increasingly innovation comes from the outside [well of course it does, we’ve stopped giving people long term stability of employment so there is little alternative]. She suggests that over the next couple of decades this will increase and we will look to new places for ideas, not just India and China but also Africa. Our western paradigms are not working and may be getting in the way of things.

I asked three questions: Is capital the right idea, how do you measure value and what about the self-fulfiling prophesies. Now the answer was interesting. Firstly she raised Weick’s concept of people lost in mountains who followed the wrong map but got out of the mountains anyway. Now I’m sorry but I don’t buy that, to make it work you would have to send 100 people into mountains with the wrong map and see who gets out, even then its a very dubious argument. Secondly argues that there are other meanings of capital (Leif says the same). Well OK I can buy that but the dominant meaning is neoclassical so that is the model people will pick up.

So what do I think?

Other than [Comments] of course! The big thing for me with the whole intellectual capital movement is applying the idea of capital to knowledge flows, when capital is a thing, its an oxymoron to talk about intangibles as capital. Its not just a linguistic thing it fundamentally affects the way you think about knowledge and not for the best. The other two big issues here are the way in network models become self-fulfiling prophesies and the much more substantial question about how do you ethically measure quality in networks. I have yet to see anyone answer these questions, and today was no exception. Indeed there seems to be a reluctance even to consider it.

weick following the map

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