Passport to the 21st Century
John Seely Brown, Steve Denning, 
Katalina Groh, Larry Prusak: 
Some of the world's leading thinkers
explore the role of storytelling in the world

 I Introduction to storytelling I John Seely Brown on science I Steve Denning on change I Katalina Groh on video
Larry Prusak on organization I Discussion I | Contact us | Bibliography on storytelling

Two modes of knowing: abstract and narrative
      e. Practice and process: JSB & Duguid
The tension between practice and process

    John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid wrote an article entitled "Practice vs. Process: The Tension That Won't Go Away" in Knowledge Directions, the Journal of the Institute for Knowledge Management (Spring, 2000). 
   In it, they describe the phenomenon of the succession of management movements in the nineties that reflected an enduring tension that arises between how knowledge in organizations is generated in practice, but implemented through process.  They believe that new knowledge is best created in single communities of practice, but that formal organizational processes are generally needed to turn inventions into marketable innovations. 
    The succession of management movements in the nineties reflected an effort to maintain a productive balance between practice on the one hand, and process on the other. Here are some excerpts:

    "The decade opened with managers still flocking to the quality movement. Soon, however, they were pulled into business process reengineering. Then as the decade closed, they turned towards knowledge management. These three shifts required 180 degree turns in quick succession. 
    "The quality movement relied to a significant degree on bottom-up, locally generated insights. A principal managerial challenge here was to identify hot-spots of exemplary practice wherever they might arise - almost like a fire watcher looking for lightning strikes in the woods. These flames had to be encouraged to spread, however, and that was often much harder than expected. Good practice, often easy to spot, turned out to be hard to move.
     "Managers have since discovered that managing knowledge can be even more difficult - knowledge is hard to find, hard to move when you want it to, and equally hard to stop when you don't want it to move. Despite these differences, the two movements had a lot in common. In particular, given that people were often the source both of best practices and of knowledge, both of these movements paid much more than lip service to the idea of the people being the company.
     "Chronologically, the process movement came in between these two. It was markedly different. Though teams that analyzed processes might include people from across the organization, the newly engineered processed tended to spread from the top down, rather than bottom up, and from the center outward, rather than from the peripheries in. (The hierarchical military was a particularly successful reengineer. Far from the people being the company, it was easy to believe from reengineering's perspective that process was more important than people, and structure more important than creativity....

Why these changes?

      "This succession of business movements doesn't simply represent a success of mutually exclusive alternatives, like long and short skirts, broad and narrow lapels. Rather, the alternatives are at their core complementary. Together they address challenges that coexist within a company. The process movement offered an organizational focus that the quality movement, for all its qualities, lacked. And knowledge management, for its part, can be seen as something of a response to process engineering that supplemented by overcoming its organizational tunnel vision....
      "The surface shifts respond to substantial, complementary tensions embedded in the structure of organizations which arise around the creation, flow and implementation of knowledge. They are what we think of as the tensions that won't go away - tensions that management has to find ways not only to live with, but also to make productive...


     "Communities of practice are groups of people whose interdependent practice binds them into a collective of shared knowledge and common identity. Within such tight knit groups, ideas move with little explicit attention to "transfer", and practice is coordinated without much formal direction. When people work this way, barriers and boundaries between people and what they do are often insubstantial or irrelevant since a collective endeavor holds them together. ...

     "Given the shared trust and understanding involved and the preference for informal rather than formal coordination, such groups generally bypass many issues of hierarchy.  None of this, of course, bestows blissful harmony on such groups. All accounts record important fights... The shared world view, however, does make clear to insiders (in a way it is not to outsiders) what is worth fighting about - and what is not....

Knowledge creation and wealth creation

    "Knowledge grows in tight knit groups.. Wealth... comes from growth, often quite explosive growth. Such growth will often pull these small communities apart or subject them to profound pressures... To create growth, you will want to pull this community apart, allowing people to develop particular facets of the community's insights. So instead of the group in which the software designers work as dexterously with hardware or the engineers intuitively understand the demands of marketing, firms develop quickly into distinct communities of designers, or engineers, or marketers, and so on. As soon as this happens, coordination, which is almost implicit in such groups, becomes an explicit headache. Boundaries, almost invisible within communities, become a major source of concern between them....


    "The challenge of coordinating diverse practice is usually best met by establishing business processes... They are the mechanisms whereby different communities of practice work not at random or serendipitously, but in a coordinated fashion. Process puts useful constraints on practice, providing the basic architecture which local changes in practice need to respect. It helps align different communities so that their separate practices, while possessed of enough autonomy to keep them vibrant, don't grow out of touch with one another. So process has to find the least amount of constraint necessary to enact the necessary amount of structure, to produce rigor without rigidity,  While a lot has been written about best practice, best process remains to be defined. We think of best processes as elegantly minimal."

Conflicting forces

   "Visually, we think of process as a vertical structure creating an organizational spine out of the myriad of practices that the organization comprises. Contrastingly, we see practice as horizontal. That is process emphasizes the hierarchical, explicit command-and-control side of organization - the structure that gets things done. Practice emphasizes the lateral connections within an organization, the implicit coordination and exploration that, for its part, produces things to do.  The two together, then, though they pull in different directions, are responsible for a firm's coordinated knowledge productions and growth. Practice without process tends to become unmanageable; process without practice becomes increasingly static. As orthogonal forces, these two inevitably do not resolve into a single force. Both have to be acknowledged."

From  John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid wrote an article entitled "Practice vs. Process: The Tension That Won't Go Away" in Knowledge Directions, the Journal of the Institute for Knowledge Management (Spring, 2000). 

Books and videos on storytelling 
*** In Good Company : How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work
by Don Cohen, Laurence Prusak (February 2001) Harvard Business School Press
*** The Social Life of Information, by John Seely Brown, Paul Duguid
(February 2000) Harvard Business School Press
*** The Springboard : How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations
by Stephen Denning (October 2000) Butterworth-Heinemann 
*** The Art of Possibility, a video with Ben and Ros Zander : Groh Publications (February 2001)
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