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on partial knowledge

August 10, 2010

Yesterday was my final one at the Academy as I need to get down to Ottawa tomorrow before moving onto Oshawa and Washington. I finally return to the UK at the weekend. I started the day with a session on ethics in management and moved onto exaptation and knowledge management by way of a failed attempt to get in on another Mintzburg session and a bit of tourism around two Cathedrals (see photostream for results). The session on ethics was interesting as there was some attempt to involve philosophy. That said, creating a triangle between Aristotle, Kant and Mill and claiming that as a full representation indicates that there is some way to go. More on ethics and exaptation later, they require more substantive posts and need more time than I have today after a long drive.

The knowledge management session worried me. There was one interesting paper describing the way in which statistics and narratives had been used (and abused) in an Australian Government report on how older people gain/retain employment. It showed how non-experts were forced into recounting their stories in giving evidence, but were not permitted to present statistical evidence, in effect made subjects not participants. Their stories were then taken up and distorted in subsequent discussions, but the official language of the final report was all stats. For me it pointed up the way in which anecdotal knowledge is often restricted to folk knowledge, or the raw discourse of the subjects of research or political action. In contrast the language of power is the language of statistics and that is reserved for the elite who also interpret the narrative to satisfy their needs for authenticity. Our work which links numbers to anecdotal material has the potential to allow the research subject to regain power of interpretation, and thus distribute the power of evidence based reasoning.

The final paper in the session illustrated one of the main dangers of statistics. The mathematics was wonderfully impressive, columns of figures and formulae all to “prove” that outsourcing outside the country is more effective that doing it within your country. Now that was a bold conclusion, backed up with all the authority of numbers. However the work was only done in one country (France) in one period (a part of a life cycle) and with no differentiation between industry sectors. The only evidence used was French Government reports. Impressive maths, but irrelevant conclusions in consequence. Too much so called objective research is like that.

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