Thursday, January 26, 2006

Un Report on Understanding Knowledge societies

The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs have produced a very interesting report on Understanding Knowledge Societies, which asks the general question, "How can society adjust to the challenge of mass-produced knowledge?"

Right up front in the foreword it challenges the widely held belief that the obvious thing for every organisation to do is to become an 'e-organisation.' The need to question this technological determinism about computers and the Net has been a hobby horse of mine for so long now, that it was a surprise to find similar concerns raised in a UN report. Computers and networks are not magic. They are tools. They will not automatically make our organisations more efficient or solve all our problems just because we think they will, especially when we design and deploy them in ways that demonstrate we've really no idea what we want them to do. I'll cut the rant at that point and quote from the report:

"...will converting every organization to an e-organization result in the transition of a society to a Knowledge (k-society) Society? That would be tantamount to assuming that at a certain level, the quantative accumulation of "e-"s would switch into a "k-," a qualitative leap that, on reflection, is rather difficult to take.

Yet we see many a government, international organization or expert in the world today de facto making such an assumption. This is troubling, as such an assumption - if incorrect - points the discussion about the transition to the Knowledge Society in the wrong direction. What is worse, it may even prevent us from an early enough understanding of the profound character of the adjustment that societies will need to make in order to manage the encounter with modern technology (and especially ICT) for the benefit of all their members.

This study submits that the accumulation of "e-"s will never result in a "k-." Rather it puts forth the idea that if societies desire to follow the path of knowledge-based growth and development, a very thorough reconstruction of their institutions must occur. It suggests to political leaders, public administrations and the public at large that a broad, well-informed debate about this institutional shift should be undertaken. The magnitude of such a shift would require the cooperation of all segments of society and their sharing not only of the risk and cost of change, bu first and foremost, of commons goals and values."

Well said. Of course the accumulation of "e-"s will never result in a "k-." I would add that there is really no such thing as an "e-" anything, merely organisations which use ICTs, sometimes to improve the activities they are engaged in but all too often to hinder them.

The whole report runs to 179 pages and is a hard read at times and sometimes disappointing - eg though it mentions the extremes of intellectual property as being a problem it doesn't deal with this in any detail - but if it's core message, that blindly "e-ing" everything is not particularly bright, gets widely dispensed it will served a useful purpose.

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