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Your business needs scholars

This article appears in the issue October 2012, [Vol 21 Issue 9]


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There's a problem with the concept of knowledge built into the word itself: "Knowledge" is very noun-y. It puts the emphasis on the content. Once you've done that, you get just about every assumption that the internetting of knowledge challenges. For example, you're likely to assume that your task is to identify the real knowledge amidst the mass of pretenders to the title. You worry about authenticating the content. You treat this precious content as an asset to be secured. You think about who should have access to this content and the damage that could be done if it were to slip from your grasp. And you begin to think that this special content stamped as "knowledge" has value in itself, the way a nugget of gold does.

There are lots of reasons to think that those assumptions are mistaken. And if they are, then the consequence is that we are not getting anywhere near enough value from our knowledge systems: Too much worthwhile knowledge is kept off the shelves, and, more devastating, the processes by which knowledge is developed and shared are strangulated.

So, it'd be good to find another way of talking about knowledge. I like the phrase "networked knowledge" or "knowledge networks" because I think they help direct attention to the connections among pieces, and to the very different topology of knowledge as it moves from paper to routers. But if you use the phrase "networked knowledge," while people probably have an idea of where you're going, the phrase still needs a fair bit of definition and elaboration; it doesn't immediately connect with concepts people hold as unproblematic.

A new option

So, here's another possibility: Think about networked knowledge in terms of scholarship. I think that is a better starting point than knowledge or networked knowledge: "If you want to understand what's happening to knowledge, think about scholarship ... " is how the pitch would begin.

Scholarship conjures up a set of ideas that are in some ways more useful than the ideas invoked by "knowledge," if only because the ideas around scholarship are not focused first and foremost on content. Rather one thinks of the long-term pursuits of serious women and men, within some sort of community, and likely supported by some sort of institution. If you think about the effect of the Net on scholarship as opposed to knowledge, you immediately get turned toward the right questions: What are the new resources? What sort of online communities are emerging? What can be done to make the Net a better place for scholarship, both for the scholars and for all the rest of us who benefit directly and indirectly from scholarship?

Fostering engagement

When it comes to business, though, scholarship sounds much more, well, academic than knowledge does. That's why we have knowledge management systems, not scholarship management systems. But just for the moment, think about your local experts as scholars. That's probably not such an inapt phrase. Your best experts are probably wrapped up in their field of expertise because they find it fascinating. That's why they're out exploring it beyond the bounds of the questions they currently need answered. These experts within your business show all the signs of scholarship, except that scholarly papers are not their ultimate output.

So, if your business benefits from its internal scholars, what sort of system will best advance their work and bring more advantages from their efforts? You'll probably focus more on enabling their continuing engagement than on building up a trove of papers. Rather, you'll want to encourage them to post their work at every stage, and provide ways for everyone to find that work. You'll want to enable people to engage in public with that work, and to do so across areas of expertise. You'll also want to let non-experts and non-scholars engage in their own ways, contributing ideas, asking questions, interpreting results for others. You'll want to give your scholars the time and freedom to pursue questions that may not have immediate relevance. You will not want to insist on a perfect democracy; the voices of your scholars need to be identified as such, since in general their words are more reliable than those of people who are stepping into the topic for the first time. You might even want to recognize some as scholars, or perhaps as "fellows," as some companies already do.

If your business has a lively and engaged scholarly community, you will gain knowledge in its most usable and provocative forms. 


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