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The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at Department of Business Administration, Free University Amsterdam, AbstractPurpose – The purpose of this research is to explore a concept of the management of professionalsthat can withstand critical questioning.
Design/methodology/approach – A case study is analysed with use of key concepts from Polanyi.
Findings – The instrumental approach to knowledge, so frequently used in knowledge management,neglects important issues. The conventional question: “How should we organize knowledge?” neglectsthe question: “How should knowledge impact organization?”. With use of Polanyi’s concept ofknowledge, a richer interdependency between knowledge and organization can be conceived. Findingswere drawn from an ethnographic case study in the IT sector to illustrate how professionals cansuccessfully negotiate the content, meaning and development of their tasks and practices. The attemptto create a safe haven, supporting professional and personal development, illustrates how the tacitdimension has emancipatory potential.
Originality/value – Contributes to clarifying the richness of Polanyi’s social thought and the uses ofthe concept of the “tacit” to organization when it is not functionally misunderstood but appreciated inits full critical force.
Keywords Tacit knowledge, Knowledge management, Critical thinking, Management power IntroductionIn my first job as a software designer at Informite (a pseudonym), I was amazed todiscover how effective and motivated software engineers were in frustratingmanagerial decisions they disagreed with. By withdrawing into technical discourse,the software engineers were able to escape managerial rationality. They made thankfuluse of the managers’ inability to fully specify demands. The engineers had contemptfor their managers. Software engineering demands careful detailed specification. If amanager was not skilful in specifying demands, then his or her legitimacy was put inquestion. But managers were effective in frustrating software engineers bywithholding resources that the engineers needed. It was not a very constructivesituation.
I have been astonished to find that such conflicts between IT professionals and managers are so very recurrent. Managers assume they are decision makers, whilethey lack substantial overview of the relevant organizational processes. They do notengage in dialogue and, as a result of the hierarchical distance, learn little about theirIT professionals. Managers cannot, consequently, enforce their decisions (Brohm,2005).
critical perspectives on internationalbusiness There has been recurrent criticism of managerial decision making in the context of (technical) specialization and professionalization. For instance, Burns and Stalker q Emerald Group Publishing Limited1742-2043DOI 10.1108/17422040610682818 The author would like to thank Anne Keegan for comments on earlier versions of this paper.
(1961) already questioned the efficacy of managerial omniscience in their studies of firms in the Scottish electronics industry. They claimed that, in cases where knowledge power of the tacit is decentralized and the organization is dependent on the responsibility of itsemployees, managerial imperative and coercive power do more harm than good. In a similar fashion, Zuboff (1988) argued that in the Information Age the legitimacy ofmanagerial authority is in question. As knowledge becomes decentralized, managerialhierarchy no longer possesses necessary essential knowledge. The increasingly abstract level of tasks renders managerial supervision close to impossible. Garrick andClegg (2001) have pointed out that performative stress results from use of theinstrumental approach to managing. Similarly, Fiol (2003) has critiqued theinstrumental orientation to knowledge processes in managerial thought. There aremany critiques of the instrumental approach to knowledge in organizations, yet muchknowledge management literature neglects these problems. Many authors (mis-)usethe concept of tacit knowledge in their approach to instrumentality. But Polanyi’s tacitdimension is at odds with their instrumental perspective on organizing; in Polanyi’sphilosophy the tacit dimension is meant to conceptualize knowledge in realinterdependence with organization.
To illustrate this interdependence between knowing and organizing, with Polanyi’s concepts, I will describe a multi-disciplinary group of IT-consultants. They believedthat if they could find synergy in their group between their different disciplines, thatthey could offer valuable service(s) to their customers. In many ways they succeeded inbridging their differences, and indeed did offer a more “complete” service to theircustomers. Their conclusions led them to negotiate as a group with their management,to try to create a safe haven[1] for their professional development, as a basis forparticipation. Thus, when we consider the relation between knowledge andorganization in terms of participation, the problems of instrumentalism can beaddressed. Participation, commitment and managerial hierarchy do not go together.
Either the manager is a representative of the group who supervises coordinationissues, or the manager represents the organization, can negotiate with the group, buthas little real knowledge about the group.
Polanyi’s concepts contribute to approaches in knowledge management that emphasize emergence in how knowledge and organization are interdependentlyproduced (Chia, 1997; Chia and Tsoukas, 2002; Fisher and Fisher, 1998; Fitzpatrick,2003; Tsoukas, 1996). Polanyi uniquely mixes systems theory and ethics. His use ofconcepts from systems theory does not lead to an over-rationalized approach. In hisconceptualization of a just social order, the need for and the protection of involvement,sincere discovery and collaboration, is all-pervasive. For Polanyi, emergence providesorder while respecting difference.
The instrumental approachIn knowledge management there is a gradual realization that the tacit dimension toorganizing and knowledge does not allow for a Taylorist or logistical approach. In thebeginning of knowledge management (1994-1997), knowledge was thought of as apackage that could be assigned an economic value (Advinsson and Malone, 1997;Brynjolfsson, 1994; Wiig, 1994), and which could be managed logistically (Group, 1990;Nonaka, 1991; Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995; Weggeman, 1996; Zack, 1999). Gradually ithas been understood that the tacit dimension resists straightforward managerial intervention. This has led to understanding organizational knowledge in strategic terms of core competencies and in relationship to competitive advantage (Boisot, 1995; Leonard and Sensiper, 1998; Leonard-Barton, 1995; Wiig, 1994). Since organizationalcompetencies are unevenly distributed and are imperfectly mobile, shared tacitknowledge; in the form of organizational routines, trust, mutual anticipations ororganizational culture; can be a source for sustainable competitive advantage.
Nonetheless, the instrumental perspective on knowledge is only aware of knowledge inrelation to organizational goals or competencies. This leads to trying to manipulate thetacit dimension all the more subtly, or “implicitly (trying to) manage the implicit”(Huysman and Wit, 2003) via interventions in organization culture (Davenport andPrusak, 1998; Fitzpatrick, 2003), for instance by increasing opportunities forinteraction and relationship building (Fitzpatrick, 2003; Nonaka et al., 2001), or bydeveloping information technology that makes individual expertise traceable (Pipeket al., 2003).
In line with the instrumental approach, knowledge is defined as an item or an organizational property that can be managed: Tacit knowledge is personal, context-specific, and therefore hard to formalize andcommunicate. Explicit or “codified” knowledge, on the other hand, refers to knowledge that istransmittable in formal, systematic language (Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995).
Many follow definitions where articulated or codified knowledge is defined inopposition to tacit knowledge, and where tacit knowledge is assumed to be impossibleor hard to transmit, while explicit knowledge is claimed to be unproblematic totransmit (Inkpen, 1996; Raelin, 1997; Weggeman, 1997). Others take the alienation ofknowledge from consciousness even further, speaking of knowledge assets that can betransferred (Boisot, 1995; Davenport and Prusak, 1998) or even measured(Brynjolfsson, 1994; Group, 1990; Wilkins et al., 1997).
In much organizational learning and knowledge management literature, it is assumed that knowledge can be transferred. Explicit knowledge or codified knowledgeis thought of as a commodity to which a traditional communication theory models[2]can be applied. Communication can be described as a sender sending a message to areceiver. Supposedly, (some) messages contain knowledge. We can see this instatements such as: Having a sender and a receiver is meant to change the way the receiver perceives something,to have an impact on his judgement and behavior. Knowledge moves around in organizations,through hard and soft networks (Davenport and Prusak, 1998, p. 3).
Knowledge is a commodity that can be managed via logistic principles. Knowledge isthen not conceptualized in interdependence with organization. Organization isconceived as a given, and knowledge serves, or is at least consensual to organization.
Positing organization, before knowing and learning, leads to hidden assumptions.
Organizing depends on a shared ability to distinguish one thing from another. Thisability is a form of knowledge. Indeed, many organizational problems described in theliterature that criticizes instrumentality revolve around criteria for organizing thelegitimacy of criteria and, most of all, the lack of shared criteria. In a very fundamentalway, organization depends on knowledge. The question “How can knowing andlearning, structure and motivate organization?” is at least as relevant, as the opposite and more common instrumental question: “How can knowing and learning, be Polanyi’s philosophy opposes instrumentalism. His texts on learning are about deep participation; on organizing, about mutual adjustment; and on society, about alternatives to totalitarianism. For Polanyi, the tacit dimension is not a property or acharacterization of non-transferable knowledge. It is an emancipatory concept thatdefends shared conviviality, intuition, and creativity in sense-making, against instrumental or reductionist rationality.
Tacit knowing and participationPolanyi distinguishes between focal awareness and subsidiary awareness. Knowinginvolves focusing on what we explicitly know and on a background that supports thefocus. Each act of knowing is creative, with tacit inferences that help to create acoherent whole – i.e. a meaning or an action. Indwelling[3], one of the main concepts ofPolanyi’s philosophy, (Allen, 1990; Sanders, 1988) refers to the dynamics betweenexplicit knowledge and tacit knowing. In indwelling, what is explicitly known isrelated to the way one sees the world. Engagement leads to tacit adaptations inperspective. Indwelling can be understood as a dynamic interchange between threecomponents: (1) focus, or a mixture of meaning and suggestion; (2) background of tacit clues – impressions, images, bodily movements; and (3) tacit inference – including integrative and performative skills (see Figure 1).
In each act of knowing, we summon and synthesize tacit clues to support the focus.
The next moment the focus changes and the previous focus disappears into thebackground. The difference with knowledge management’s tacit and explicit knowledge is that, for Polanyi, the process of focus is more important than is the explicit knowledge. The ways in which we learn to create focus is what is important.
The idea that each of us has a particular perspective (focus) from which we understandthe world (Weick, 1995) is, of course, almost a truism. However, indwelling relatesperspective (focus) to tacit inference: We may comprise this whole set of faculties – our conceptions and skills, our perceptual framework and our drives – in one comprehensive power of anticipation (Polanyi, 1962,p. 103).
The focus or perspective determines the general tendency of anticipating events,meaning-making and relating bodily movement to action. A perspective is, thus, arecurrent combination of integrative skills, which structure perception, action andcommunication, in a particular way. People develop several perspectives whenparticipating in different communities. These perspectives structure perception. And,perspectivism leads to the possibility that people learn to see things in similar ways asother participants of their community do; but it also implies that people may have goodreasons to disagree. They may have learned to see things in radically different ways: Different vocabularies for the interpretation of things divide men into groups which cannotunderstand each other’s ways of seeing things and of acting upon them. For different idiomsdetermine different patterns of possible emotions and actions. If and only if, we believe inwitches may we burn people as witches, if and only if we believe in God will we buildchurches; if we believe in master races we may exterminate Jews and Poles, if in class war, wemay join the Communist Party. . . (Polanyi, 1962, p. 112-3).
This citation refers to the limitations on social order. The tacit dimension implies thatthere is no neutral ground from which to coordinate different perspectives. Polanyi’sperspectivity is more radical than a plea for tolerance for multiple perspectives. Itconfronts us with the fact that, in the end, there may not be sufficient shared ground todecide who is right and who is wrong. Limitations to organizing on the basis ofrationality are hereby set in a different way than in bounded rationality (March, 1994).
It is not just that cognition is too limited to comprehend the whole - because it lacksinformation, or processing abilities, or memory – but, that people, at crucial points,experience different phenomena, based on having different criteria and different usesof language. A perspective is not an individual achievement; it develops fromparticipating in social groups. This allows both for shared perspectives andfundamental differences.
Polanyi’s concept of participation relies on conviviality – a well being that arises from being with others. Conviviality operates on a basic or even primordial level(Polanyi, 1962, p. 209). Conviviality is preconscious, or prior to articulation; it is thesharing of experience on the tacit level. It involves being with the other, “reaching outfor the other and sharing in each other’s life” (Polanyi, 1962, p. 210). Participation injoint activities or joint performance relies on conviviality (Polanyi, 1962, p. 211).
Participation “affirms the convivial existence of the group, as transcending theindividual, both in the times present and through times past” (Polanyi, 1962, p. 212).
Practice is shared and developed only by relying on and committing to sharedassumptions (see Polanyi, 1962, p. 266-8). Shared understanding depends on jointassumptions; in conviviality people adapt their idioms and language in a similar way(see Polanyi, 1962, p. 205): The adaptation of our conceptions and of the corresponding use of language to new things that we identify as new variants of known kinds of things is achieved subsidiarily, while our power of the tacit attention is focussed on making sense of a situation in front of us. Thus we do this in the sameway in which we keep modifying, subsidiarily, our interpretation of sensory clues by striving for clear and coherent perceptions, or enlarging our skill without focally knowing how bypracticing them in ever new situations (Polanyi, 1962, p. 112).
Usually we are too occupied with making sense of our situation to notice that we are unwittingly modifying our perspective to fit the idiosyncrasy of the event. Thus, incommunication both perspective and meaning co-develop. Polanyi used the termmutual adjustment to call attention to shared processes, of tacitly adjusting to oneanother’s perspectives. The intricate relationship between communication and tacitadaptations implies that there is a possibility of arriving at similar perspectives overtime: I believe that even though people may conceivably misunderstand any particular wordaddressed to them, they can, as a rule, convey information reliably enough by speech. For Ithink that the tacit judgments involved in the process of denotation do tend to coincidebetween different people and that different people also tend to find the same set of symbolsmanageable for the purpose of reorganizing their knowledge (Polanyi, 1962, p. 205).
Participation is thus significantly different from an exchange of messages.
Participation entails a continuous adaptation in how we relate to ourselves and tothe other. These tacit adaptations entail changes in interpretation in the ways we stageour social performances, and in our anticipations of others.
It is not the individual that is the vehicle of knowledge, nor the community, nor the social aggregate. It is through participation that we learn how to understand anenvironment, or how to stage collective performances, or how to pursue our passions.
Person[4] and collective are the products of participation and they determine the focusof awareness. At the same time, they are resources for participation providingperspectives for the development of new foci.
The instrumental approach relies on the transmission of the message model of communication. In contrast, Polanyi emphasizes adjustments in ways of knowing andbeing in the world, underlying the potential for meeting the other and for sharing ineach other’s life. Contrastingly, the instrumental approach implies that there is no realmeeting, for there is a goal to be met and thus no space to adjust significantly to theother. For Polanyi, participation underpins knowledge, awareness and insight. In hisopposition to totalitarian governance, Polanyi stresses that there must be no structuralborders that deny participants access to the knowledge that they need to decide or toact. Polanyi’s combination of structure and openness is based on his proposition thatpractices of self-government or tolerance are sustained by tradition: . . . [political and cultural freedom] is not in the explicit content of its [free societies’] rules, butin the tacit practice of interpreting these rules. It is on the unspecifiable art of conducting freeactivities that the preservation of freedom must rely; and similarly, all formulations of liberalprinciples must derive their meaning from a prior knowledge, diffused inarticulately amongthe citizens of free countries, of what freedom is (Polanyi and Allen, 1997, p. 203.
Organization and insight co-develop from participation emerging from mutualadjustment. By locating participation as the basis of the dynamic between knowingand organizing, Polanyi could not have been further from instrumentality. To see what this means for a concrete organization, I present a case that helped me to shape my understanding of the emancipatory power of participation.
The EDM-caseIn January 1999, C-Nox was an IT-consultancy organization of about 30 people,apparently structured as a matrix organization containing “competency groups”.
These groups were meant to develop business propositions, and the resulting projectteams were to generate the revenues. C-Nox, in its own terms, was organized as“a network of professionals”. The network was supposedly supported by a proprietaryintranet system. In order to obtain more funding, the CTO and the software developersclaimed that their intranet could be transformed into a set of applications thatorganizations could access via the internet[5]. In response to the failure of thecompetency groups to generate profit, the management team (MT) allowed the CTO toinvest further in the intranet. In 2000, C-Nox had grown to 60 people, and in order toobtain further funding, the MT redefined C-Nox as an application server provider. Thisentailed that C-Nox no longer presented itself as a consultancy organization, but as onerenting standardized IT-services over the internet. Customers were to be dependent onC-Nox’s (rented) information services, demanding a high level of reliability, whichwould then reinforce C-Nox’s performance via service level agreements. In order toreach this level of reliability, the management team concluded that they had totransform C-Nox from a network of professionals into a bureaucracy. The communitiesin C-Nox received a new assignment: developing ASP services through the adaptationof existing software packages.
In 2000, I started to investigate how the employees of C-Nox were responding to drastic change. Soon I became involved with one of the communities. The group wascalled the EDM-group (an abbreviation of electronic document management).
Employees who had been attracted by the “network-of-professionals” story, wereassigned to the EDM-group, together with a group leader. The members of theEDM-group had a wide range of consultancy services on offer aimed at documentmanagement; including analysis of business processes, modelling and design ofdocument workflow, integration of document management systems with existinginformation systems, the migration of data and procedures of legacy systems to newsystems, the education of employees, and end-user sessions.
The monthly meetings of the EDM-group were a process of shared sense-making and decision taking. The EDM-members exchanged views on the current state ofaffairs in C-Nox, on developments in “the market,” and on recurrent issues at theircustomers’ sites. They searched for shared ambition and tried to define tactics andstrategies to address shared issues and ambitions. During their meetings, there were nopredefined hierarchical or power differences. In between the meetings, there wererepresentatives of the group that supervised, coordinated or negotiated, and hadtherefore a different status.
What struck me at the start of the very first group meeting in February 2000 was the explicit diversity of perspectives present in the group. The EDM-members saw thisas a key to their shared identity: i.e. the possibility to make use of difference to benefitthe quality of their services. Almost paradoxically, the acknowledgement of differencesconstituted an important theme in the shared identity. The first meeting wasfrustrating for the group. Apparently there were no stories of shared practice available.
Repeated demands for concrete implications of ideas were answered with broad statements, discussion of general dilemmas (approaching a broad market vs. power of the tacit specializing in a segment), or acknowledgements of the limitations of their consultancypractice (we tie loose ends together in an organization). The EDM-members acknowledged that they lacked the experience to draw in contracts at a senior level.
Their point of entrance had never been at board level, but more as IT-problem solvers.
When a potential customer had identified a technological issue, C-Nox was invited to In the very first of the monthly meetings, it was clear that the EDM-group was far from being able to present a clear identity to customers, or to C-Nox. There was a willto distance them selves from the new ASP-strategy of C-Nox, but they lacked analternative vision. They made use of the old C-Nox narrative about a “network ofprofessionals”. While this text had attracted them to work for C-Nox, it had alreadyfailed commercially. Despite the frustration, I found the meeting pregnant withpotential new meanings. Many unresolved issues were made explicit. They not onlyhad a long way to go, but also had an inkling of a direction to be taken. TheEDM-group’s presentation to customers demanded tackling, as did the issue of anindependent strategy from C-Nox. The recurring demand for concrete measures, theidentification of unsolved matters and problems, displayed meaning as a Gestalt, or acoherent whole, as well as, as a void that demanded further sense-making. Many newpaths or themes for shared sense-making were opened during this first meeting.
In the second meeting, the EDM-members realized that the ASP-strategy of C-Nox conflicted with their own professional ambitions. C-Nox was no longer willing to investin the development of their consultancy skills, now that company focus was ondelivering ASP-services as soon as possible. Seeing and repeating to one another thecontrasts between consultancy and ASP created a story in the EDM-group about theirown identity. After the group members told and retold the “EDM as different fromC-Nox story”. Henri, the external group facilitator, tried to focus attention: We have to be careful, for you as a unit it makes no difference what the C-Nox holding doeswith profits. Even if they [C-Nox] want to flush it through the toilet every month, as a unitthat is of no real interest. . . [The question is] are you able to effectively operate as a businessunit, in a way that you can sustain yourselves? [The question] what will be done with theprofits is, ultimately, not your problem (March, 2000, p. 171).
Henri tried to set boundaries about what concerns the group should address and whatnot, and thereby to reduce the complexity of the (social as well as business)environment. As the EDM-group still had trouble understanding the implications ofthe discussion, Henri explained: There is a negotiation coming up here between a . . . business unit . . . and a holding. Thebottom-line is: “Can the unit do her work within the norms that have been set? . . . When yousay ‘No’, then there is either something wrong in the rules of the game or with yourselves, andthen you need to discuss what needs to change” (March, 2000, p. 173).
Henri introduced a completely new element when he asserted that the EDM-group can“negotiate”. The term “business unit” was being reinterpreted. This term had comefrom the MT to emphasize the bureaucratization of C-Nox. Henri proposed to see it asan invitation to polyphony. A “business unit” came to mean a fairly independentorganizational unit, which can negotiate about its targets. But the EDM-members missed the implications of Henri’s point. They went on to discuss the ‘unfairness of the rules of the game’. Henri’s next intervention is, I think, a turning point in the . . . if one wants to do something one has to do it as EDM {group} and not as an individual. Asa business unit one can negotiate strategy, but not as an individual. March 2000, p. 207.
A long silence followed (12 seconds), the EDM-members were amazed and intrigued;Henri continued: Thus you are only as strong as your shared vision. Insofar you are able to collectively standbehind a decision or standpoint you are able to be effective.
In effect, this was a call for the EDM-group members to stand up as one to the C-Noxorganization. But it also asked: “Will you backup Carl (the group leader) when henegotiates with the MT?” Carl was the obvious representative of the team as he hadbeen appointed group leader. This was the start of a series of negotiations between theEDM-group, represented by Carl, and the MT concerning targets, training, staffing andstrategy.
At the third meeting, a new group member tenaciously defended the ASP-strategy.
Membership and embodiment were at issue: C-Nox, or the EDM-group. In the resultingdiscussion, consultancy-activities could be profitable. An EDM-discourse developed with anopen-ended, materialistic rationale. The EDM-group had sought an anti-ASP ideologyto counter the C-Nox, now they sought to thrive within the ASP ideology. The moreeffectively they could create revenue, the more they could pursue their ambitions anddo the things they liked. In this sense, their discourse became materialistic, but notreductionistic; creating revenues was a means, not an end in itself. The goal was tocreate a safe haven for professional development. The more efficient this safe havencould be established, the better.
During the fourth meeting, the central position of the MT was questioned. This was the start of the EDM-group trying to initiate change in the organization. They felt thatalthough their collective ambitions were still developing, a more coherent strategy wasneeded than that of the MT. They packaged their ambitions in such a way that they werealigned with the ASP-strategy. The negotiations between the EDM-group and the MTbegan to entail demands of the EDM-group on the C-Nox organization. Not only did theMT no longer determine what the EDM-group was; the EDM-group started to confrontthe MT with critique. The EDM-group was one of the smaller groups in C-Nox, but it wasfinancially the most successful. The EDM-group created revenues that C-Nox eagerlyneeded, but which, in the investors’ evaluations of C-Nox’s assumed e-business potential,was much more valued than actual consulting revenue. The EDM-group provided muchneeded cash flow, but was not especially good for C-Nox’s image.
The fifth meeting rounded off many of the discussions started during the four preceding months. Emphasis was on the relationship of the EDM-group with itscustomers. Customers approached C-Nox to have a particular technical problemsolved. However the consultants of the EDM-group wanted to deliver morecomprehensive solutions, entailing organizational change and strategy. They hopedthat after having been hired by middle managers, that they could introduce moreelaborate holistic solutions. But they were limited by their dependence on middle management with its constrained power. Neither C-Nox nor the EDM-group was “clubbable” enough to enter large organizations on the strategic level. C-Nox’s power of the tacit management was simply not part of the Dutch elite. Moreover, the EDM-group did nothave the capacity to implement a major, company-wide project. They concluded that they had to concentrate on innovating with “state-of-the-art” technologies. The meetingwas a turning point. The EDM-group had created a story based on shared identity.
There were no obvious false pretences creating a gap between the story and the capacities and perspectives of the participants. The story was consistent, gavedirection, and described membership in relation to C-Nox and their customers. Now thecontent was increasingly directed towards group activity and innovation, and less todescribing their own identity and direction.
In the succeeding meetings, members of the EDM-group increasingly detached themselves from the goals and meanings of C-Nox. They started to define their ownwork environment. They even discussed whether they still wanted to be a part ofC-Nox. The EDM-group started a joint venture with a small IT-company to combinedocument management with a new search technology. Two of the more commercialmembers of the EDM-group developed a knowledge management pitch. At the end of2000, the EDM-group had developed new technology and consultancy practices. Andwhile in size the EDM-group was only 10 per cent of C-Nox, they generated 60 per centof its revenues.
DiscussionCritique of instrumental approaches to knowledge management questions the ability ofmanagers to decide and to control professionals. Such critique questions what is“organizing”. Are there so many different perspectives that an overarchingunderstanding is not possible? Polanyi addresses this question. He saw a crucialrole for emergence in the tackling of the knowledge (management) problem. Theemergence of social order depends on shared participation and mutual adjustment. TheEDM-group was made up of IT-professionals who intended to innovate. Processes andqualities of participation were crucial. They created a safe haven for their professionaldevelopment, and met prerequisite context demands.
ParticipationThe idea of participation rooted in the tacit dimension starts from different axioms thanthose in economic theory. It is not opportunism, surveillance or the alignment of propertyrights, that defines the relationship between professional and organization. Identity,goals of employees and organizational ambition are interdependently defined. Therelation between professional identity and the organization in the EDM-group wentbeyond an economic relation. When problem and solution cannot be defined in advance,professional effectiveness requires creative problem solving. Indwelling defines anun-(pre-)specified but potentially broad spectrum of particulars. Creativity andexperience are needed to intuit the meaning of the particulars. Tension between arigid management rationale and the fundamental indefiniteness of problems is obvious.
To solve problems, professionals need to have access to resources. Professionals requirea context supportive of their professional and personal development. When this is denied– and even worse, without dialogue – responsibility and participation is frustrated. Theconcept of managing professionals is inherently paradoxical. On the one hand, the professional must identify with the organization and work supportively within it and pursue opportunities that it defines. On the other hand, for the professional, unknown and inaccessible management rationales determine events – including, all too often, thatthe professional’s efforts and initiatives are thwarted. The professional is (normally) notable to gain access to managerial decision making. Professionals cannot anticipate whatwill be decided, let alone participate or influence decision making. Resulting recurrent frustration destroys the professional’s identification with the organization. Themanagement of professionals is thus paradoxical because management requires thatprofessionals identify with the organization in terms of creativity and commitment; butsubsequently, management destroys the self-same identification to protect hierarchy andmanagement’s power position.
From an economic perspective, it may be hard to understand the trouble that arose in C-Nox between the EDM’ers and management. But when we understand thesoftware engineers as participating and committing themselves to the development ofa product, their frustration with being managed top-down can be easily understood.
EmergenceWilliam Ouchi (1979) described three control mechanisms with which an organizationcan control its employees. The first is based on managerial supervision, the second onthe alignment of property rights, and the third attempts to make employees identify withthe goals and rationales of the organization. Such identification is exactly what happenedin the case of the EDM-group. Top-down control then becomes inherently frustrating andalienating. William Ouchi fails to address this problem. When an employee identifieswith the organization, s/he will want to impact the organization. In the EDM-case, theIT-professionals were able to negotiate with C-Nox on resources, and to establish a safehaven from which they could act and develop their practice(s). Professionals need thepower to establish such safe havens. Not only does the professional need this power, inmany cases I think that the professional is only able to be effective if possessing it.
Needed power can come from two sources. Firstly, since managers rely for theiroverview on the professionals, the professionals have power over what the organizationcan know. The interfaces in the EDM-group allowed the EDM-members to decide whatwas communicated to management. Secondly, professionals have a basis for negotiationbecause they are the owners of organizational competency. In the EDM-case, their abilityto create revenue and to deliver a package of services, constituted their basis fornegotiation. If professionals have power [are em-power(-ed)] they enact a collectiveidentity that has influence on their enacted environment.
Polanyi’s use of the concept of emergence points to the intention to organize, despite the presence of different perspectives. Different perspectives do not come togetherautomatically. The basis for emergent social order is that people participate in jointactivity and thereby reach out to the collective. No perspective is inherently dominant.
Emerging meaning, arises from the different perspectives. For instance, in the case ofthe EDM-group, the network of meanings that emerged from their discussions entailedan understanding of ASP, including how to make use of C-Nox’s ASP-strategy forEDM-group goals. Their network of meanings was based on technical considerationsand definitions, understanding of their market and customers, and an estimate ofwhich tactical manoeuvres were feasible. One could try to “manage” the differentperspectives by making the managerial perspective dominant. The effect is false emergence[6]; no real emerging solutions arise out of the different perspectives, the differences remain – only repressed. When feedback is blocked or suppressed, power of the tacit participation is frustrated and destroyed. As there is no open process of mutualadjustment, there is only continuing manipulation, meant to make the employee part of a system that is alien to him or her. False emergence comes from enforcing oneperspective and reducing all others. Contrastingly, in the EDM-group there wasopenness. A combination of the words openness, honesty and democracy were all often mentioned in one breath. Openness and honesty implied not only members wereallowed to know, but also, that each member was expected to comment.
Emergence implies the possibility of impacting all aspects of the social order, without forgetting that there are always other relevant considerations. There arealways issues that come from a scarcity of resources. Given the lack of time to convenea meeting and to decide collectively, a group may choose to work with representatives.
Given a scarcity of resources, some resources may be distributed in the group in waysthat will not please everyone, etcetera.
ConclusionPolanyi’s paradigm of tacit knowing has important consequences for the relationbetween knowing and organizing. The tacit dimension implies that knowledge issomething inseparable from personal history and social context. Knowledge is not anobject that can be managed. There is no simple way to transfer knowledge;communication relies on shared tacit assumptions and interpretations.
Communities, organizations and societies are not built on the mere exchange of words and texts. It is the involvement of the participants that is crucial. Participation,or involvement, is a process in which the self reaches out to the social-collective.
Involvement entails the mutual adjustment of perspectives, involving shared history,implicit clues and utterances. Polanyi sees the relation between organization, orgovernance, on the one hand, and knowing and being, on the other, as ethical. Hisconcern is whether the adjustments are really mutual, or whether they are enforced,however subtly. In other terms: is organization a result of suppressing the diversity ofperspectives, or is organization emergent and does it reproduce diversity? The EDM-case displays several aspects of participation in an emergent social order.
The efforts of the EDM-members were directed to the development of a safe haven fortheir professional development. They created autonomy to establish their professionalgoals and the means to pursue them. They could influence the selection of customersand projects through the development of sales stories. Their motivation depended onshared participation, wherein they developed an accommodating social order. This ishighly different from the economic and instrumental approach to employees, based onthe exercise of imperative power, alignment of property rights, or an appropriation animposed organizational identity (Ouchi, 1979).
The negotiations of the EDM-group with C-Nox relied on the ability of the EDM-members to generate revenues and to successfully provide consultancy servicesto customers. Their “freedom” was performativity based. Management knew next tonothing about their problems in the projects, or which opportunities they had. Thesewere seen to be relevant only to the EDM-group, as only they felt responsible for thequality of their relations with customers. This point illustrates the tension betweenmanagement and knowledge. Managers are usually conceptualized as decision makers.
Their task is to monitor, decide and direct employees. But professionals’ tasks have become so abstract, relevant information has become so rich and diverse, that insight, overview and supervision, can no longer be effectively centralized in the managerialhierarchy.
In the EDM-case, management was outside the professional group. There were group representatives responsible for coordination. But they were perceived as representing the group, and if need be they were corrected in the monthly meetings.
But the MT-members were outside, even if they had been prior part of the EDM-group.
They were only informed via representatives and about reified and not emergentmatters – i.e. revenues, investments, and expected revenues.
Phrases such as “management of tacit knowledge” or “management of professionals” are suspect. When we understand that professionals rely onparticipation, the question becomes: “Does management respect, accommodate andinteract with the professionals?” Or “Does management organize a reified interfacewith the professionals?” In the first case, managers coordinate professionals but nolonger run the organization; in the second, managers only have a very limited(pseudo-)rational task.
1. There is not a proper translation of the Dutch word “vrijplaats” that I can find in any dictionary. A “vrijplaats” is an asylum where people are free from persecution no matterwhat their condition, conviction or history is. The “vrijplaats” originates from the MiddleAges, a place to deviate from the norm: for criminals to gather, for homosexuals to meet, forpeople to profess their religion, etc. As an English approximation I will use the term “safehaven”.
2. As described for instance in Boisot (1995), p. 41-2.
3. Indwelling is reminiscent of concepts such as Heidegger’s Dasein, Gadamer’s verstehen, or phenomenological uses of embodiment (MacWhinney, 1999; Varela et al., 1992).
4. Person comes from the Greek word “persona”: that through which the sound comes through, which originally referred to the masks that were used during the theatre plays. It is in thiscontexts that I use the word, to avoid an assumption of an essential, atomistic self.
5. A very common example of this is webmail. A user only needs a browser to have access to e-mail functionalities. The software that provides this functionality is not installed at theuser’s computer but at the server of the providing company.
6. The origin of the idea comes from Hugo Letiche, which he described in preliminary version of Letiche and Boje (2001), but which, in the end, he did not include.
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