A triumph of the explicit over the tacit and the subsequent loss of learning

I’ve spent the last week dealing with a range of institutional systems for the submission and processing of assignments, results etc. I’m likely to spend at least another week or two trudging through the inexplicable holes, dead-ends, and busy work such systems create. Hence the need for a break. While walking through the local “Japanese Gardens” back to the office I stumbled across a possible explanation. Or at least a catchy phrase to represent that explanation and provide an opportunity to revisit and share some recent reading.

These ill-fitting systems are illustrative of the triumph of the explicit over the tacit (and implicit) that is embodied in the type of business-like processes and policies in use in the current modern Australian university. It’s this triumph that is the biggest barrier to widespread improvement and innovation in learning and teaching at those institutions because they limited institutional learning.

Japanese Gardens

For example, the design of these information systems is based on the traditional Software Development Life Cycle where some poor sod had to develop the set of requirements which were then dutifully turned into software by the IT department or some vendor (even worse because the requirements become even less important as the focus becomes what the vendor’s system can do). The requirements have to be made explicit so that the IT department can prove to unhappy users who find a system they can’t use, that the system is exactly what the users asked for.

Beyond this there is a need to make explicit various formal university policies (and then unintentionally hide them on Intranets). There needs to be an explicit model for everything and everyone has to follow the same explicit model. After all, consistency is quality (isn’t it?). Managers are happy when they see evidence of consistent following of these processes. When in reality every person and their dog is complaining bitterly about the constraints and inappropriateness of these models and actively searching any which way around them.

The attempt to capture all insight and knowledge about the system and its requirements and make it explicit has failed. And worse the people, policies and processes put in place are largely incapable of recognising this. Let alone being able to do something about it. But the explicit has triumphed.

By trying to appear rational and capable of making everything explicit, these processes and policies are sacrificing the tacit. Not only does this triumph make the institution ignorant of the reality of the lived experience of its staff and students, it sacrifices any ability to learn and innovate.

This is no great original insight. Many folk have observed similar previously.

Ciborra (2002)

In this respect, science-based, method-driven approaches can be misleading. Contrary to their promise, they are deceivingly abstract and removed from practice.

…how to go beyond appearances and the illusionary realness of those management and systems concepts in common currency and how to value the apparitions of the ordinary in the life of information systems and organisations.

The development of organisational information systems, processes and policies aim to abstract away the realities of context and achieve a neat tidy, rational model. I see a great similarity between this and what Seely Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989) suggest

Many methods of didactic education assume a separation between knowing and doing, treating knowledge as an integral, self-sufficient substance, theoretically independent of the situations in which it is learned and used.

You can see evidence of this in the observation that the people who develop such systems are generally not involved in the day to day situation in which those systems are used. Not to mention that many of the system owners aren’t directly involved in the day to day use of such systems. The administrative staff put in place to double check consistent following of the standard process never actually have to complete the process themselves. They just make sure everyone else does. The “knowers” and “doers” are separate.

It’s not uncommon for the “knowers” to talk disparagingly of the “doers”. Anyone whose attended a meeting where IT management and academic management get together will have stories of this. So, not only do they not engage in the doing, they don’t value the insights that arise from the “doing”.

In getting into situated learning, Seely Brown et al (1989) continue

The activity in which knowledge is developed and deployed, it is now argued, is not separable from or ancillary to learning and cognition. Nor is it neutral. Rather, it is an integral part of what is learned.

And this, I believe, isn’t limited to the development of information systems and formal university policies and processes. This triumph of the explicit over the tacit directly informs much of the practice of central learning and teaching policies and processes. The very institutional instruments that are meant to inform and improve the quality of learning and teaching.

I’m going to suggest that the harnessing of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and the widespread improvement of the quality of learning and teaching within Australian Universities is being significantly held back because of this uncritical acceptance of supposedly rational methods that result in the triumph of the explicit over the implicit. Even worse, this triumph is a big drag on the ability of these institutions to learn how to be better and to innovate.

Ciborra (2002)

let us drop the old methodologies, in, order to be better able to see the new dimensions the technology is going to disclose to us

The capacity to integrate unique ideas and practical design solutions at the end-user level turns out to be more important than the adoption of structured approaces to systems development or industry analysis

The power of bricolage, improvisation and hacking is that these activities are highly situated; they exploit, in full, the local context and resources at hand, while often pre-planned ways of operating appear to be derooted, and less effective because they do not fit the contingencies of the moment. Also, almost by definition these activities are highly idiosyncratic, and tend to be invisible both because they are marginalised and because they unfold in a way that is small in scope. The results are modes of operating that are latent and not easy to imitate. Thus, the smart bricolage or the good hack cannot be easily replicated outside the cultural bed from which it has emerged.

Throw away your best practices, your annual plans, quality assurance etc (at least a bit) and allow the space and resources for bricolage. Allow the harnessing of the tacit.

References

Ciborra, C. (2002). The Labyrinths of Information: Challenging the Wisdom of Systems. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Seely Brown, J., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32–42.

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