A new set of lenses

medium_2354086423Sometimes I think the experience of learning is rather more like putting on your eyeglasses, or getting a new set of prescription lenses. You see things that you have seen all along but perhaps now a bit more clearly. Or with more definition. That certainly has been my experience during the first two weeks of #edcmooc.

It was quite a pleasure to find the instructional team behind #edcmooc providing a well-needed bit of relief from my normal world by taking me on an exploration of utopias and dystopias. The educational and professional world I live in revolves around understanding business. My professional background is in business. I now teach about business: learning, organizational change, and knowledge sharing in the context of business organizations. Not the places you typically find serious looks at utopian vs. dystopian perspectives.

Through the readings, videos and discussions of the past two weeks it has been interesting to unpack the sometimes subtle ways in which utopian/dystopian perspectives of digital culture play out. I find myself now recognizing the language of these perspectives as a matter of habit. (For example: Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist, flirts with the dystopian view in her Sunday column today about the U.S.’s use of drones, the email hacking of the Bush family, and Chinese break-ins of what should be secure networks. “It was a week for worrying about the dark side of our cool, fast, exciting, heedless new technologies,” she writes.) Similarly, I am beginning to recognize the pervasiveness of technological determinism.

Being able to label things is interesting and I’ve learned it to be an important first cognitive step in mashing things up with my existing mental models. The mashup went full throttle in reading two pieces articulating two sides of the technology-and-education debate:

Shirky, C. (2012). Napster, Udacity and the academy. shirky.com, 12 November 2012. http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2012/11/napster-udacity-and-the-academy/

Bady, A. (2012). Questioning Clay Shirky. Inside Higher Ed, 6 December 2012. http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/12/06/essay-critiques-ideas-clay-shirky-and-others-advocating-higher-ed-disruption

My paycheck now comes from a higher education institution and as an ed tech geek, these discussions resonate deeply. I see it playing out in my institution and others. I also see it – have seen it – play out in business. The social-business utopians battling for cultural dominance over the we-must-lock-down-and-control-survivalists.

But the aha moment for me came when I started treating the labeling less like just a way to name things and more a way to step back and see culture through the lens of language and metaphor.

This is familiar territory for me. In the course I teach on organizational knowledge sharing, one of my favorite assigned readings is John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid’s 2001 piece “Knowledge and Organization: A Social-Practice Perspective.” In this well-known work, Brown and Duguid argue for the utility of using practice — as in “work practice” or profession — as the appropriate unit of analysis for understanding the dynamics of knowledge flow within and across organizations.

“From the idea that tacit knowledge is ‘nontradable’ and needs to be converted into explicit form to circulate, we come instead to the idea not only that conversion (if it involves uprooting knowledge from the tacit) is problematic, but also that tacit knowledge is required to make explicit knowledge usefully tradable or mobile. Only by first spreading the practice in relation to which the explicit makes sense is the circulation of explicit knowledge worthwhile … Knowledge, in short, runs on rails laid by practice.”(Brown and Duguid, 2001)

Emphasis is mine in the above quotation. Knowledge runs on rails laid by practice gives you a new set of lenses. If you can see “practice” you may discover something interesting about the way in which knowledge flows or doesn’t within and across organizations. And practices present themselves not only through activity but also language and metaphors. It has become a fascinating way to see different levels of culture at play within organizations, and understand how language and activity interact.

To the insights gained from two weeks looking a utopian-dystopian perspectives on technology: Like “practice,” what you see has always been there. It is now much more sharply defined and clear. And it is leading me to a deeper appreciation for the influence of culture (macro, micro) on all that we do.

References and credits:
Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (2001). Knowledge and Organization: A Social-Practice Perspective. Organization Science, 12(2), 198–213. doi:Article

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc

4 thoughts on “A new set of lenses

  1. … ah, delightful, these mirrors of the self across the seas, these travels through the wasteland with fellow wanderers… not ceasing from exploration, and at the end, to arrive where we started, and actually know the place for the first time…


  2. It seems so often that we “fix” practices in organizations without understanding the extended implications. I am reminded of a futile effort to impose discipline regarding roles and responsibilities in a matrix organization. The thinking was time and resources were being wasted because of the lack of process consistency from team to team. It wasn’t until the imposed roles were in place that we realized the lack of consistency wasn’t a problem for teams- their intra team processes worked just fine- but for the functions connected to them. We disrupted “their rails” big time. Instead of enhancing productivity, it was set back considerably.


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