Monday, September 22, 2003

Fishing for Constructed Answers

OR

Knowledge Management as Fad: Lessons from the Construction Industry (see Creswell, 1994 for discussion on naming research projects)

Everyday I walk through the Grad Club on my way to the PhD office. As I open the door I look over my shoulder and see a wonderful sight: a new building rising from the dust; I hear the cries of the construction workers and recognize the choreography of a construction site.

And I notice something else. My experience as a Civil Engineer has given me the vocabulary I need to see the fish.

Over the past few months I have been involved in a number of online discussions about Knowledge Mangement (KM). Many of these conversations concerned KM in construction. It seems that the construction world is turning to KM with great hopes that it will solve many of their problems. Upon reflection, I have to wonder how.

Overview

The KM literature has generally established a dichotomy of knowledge: explicit and tacit (see Davenport & Prusak, 1998; Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995; Polanyi, 1967). Unlike many industries that have embraced KM, however, construction has incredibly well developed mechanisms for exchanging exactly the kind of information that is embodied by this dichotomous definition. Construction is supported by a rich pantheon of official documents such as proposals, investigations, reports, GANTT charts, blue prints, receipts, catalogues, contracts, RFIs, progress reports, etc. (see Usenet: Goodall, 2003). These documents have been developed over the past 1300 years and represent an incredibly articulate demonstration of explicit knowledge. Similarly, the construction industry has robust means of exchanging tacit knowledge. Construction projects typically involve three different professions—engineers, architects, and planners—each of which has a professional association that mandates several years of experience and indoctrination in the profession before granting full membership. Likewise, labour is generally conducted by—or is at least supervised by—tradesmen who have spent many years honing their craft. While professional associations are relatively modern, the construction trade unions were established to facilitate the construction of cathedrals during the middle ages.

The construction industry should be the model of KM as indicated by the explicit/tacit dichotomy. But it’s not. There is considerable call to incorporate KM practices into construction (Rezgui, 2001).

I propose that the issue is not that construction needs KM but rather that the intellectual premise of KM is completely unfounded as demonstrated by the construction industry.

Research Approach

As I walk across the Western campus I can see my shimmering fish. UWO is in the midst of the largest expansion program since the sixties (Haynes, 2002). The question is how to actually conduct the research.

Considerably ink has been spilt on the issue of KM in the construction industry (see bibliographies provided by George Goodall at http://www.brint.com/wwwboard/messages/131203.html and http://www.brint.com/wwwboard/messages/131247.html). Unfortunately, much of this literature is rooted firmly in the existing process-focussed and technology-based KM paradigm. For the purposes of my research, this literature is valuable only for discursive reasons.

The undergraduate Civil Engineering cannon currently sitting on my bookshelf aptly represents the explicit dimension of KM in construction. The tacit dimension, however, is considerably more difficult to tease from the literature. Architecture tomes, for example, provide plenty of discussion regarding the interaction of people and buildings but generally cast little light on the interactions required to construct a building. Histories and biographies also provide interesting details of the construction industry. Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York (1928), for example, pays considerable attention to the role that tenements such as The Old Brewery played in the formation of the famous gangs of the Five Points and the Bowery. Again, the actual interactions of the workers are largely missing. A better choice for textual analysis may be a book such as Gay Talese’s The Bridge (2003) which details the construction of New York’s Verazanno Bridge. It should be noted, however, that these books lie far from the typical vade mecum of both KM and construction.

I realize that determining one specific research method may be difficult. While I’m unsure of what approach will actually appear in my proposal, I can mention several works that seem to be calling to me. The first is Wenger’s Communities of Practice (1998). Although I feel that Wenger’s conclusions may be unfounded, he does provide insight into the role of the observer-participant in collecting qualitative data for organizational research. Similarly, Mintzberg’s The nature of managerial work (1973) contains a very valuable appendix with descriptions of strategies for organizational research. While both Wenger and Mintzberg maintain a focus on artefacts, I suspect that the tacit dimension of construction that is crucial to my investigation will be invisible to official artefacts. To address this concern, I feel myself drawn to Yiannis Gabriel’s Storytelling in organizations (2000) and Karin Knorr Cetina’s Epistemic cultures (Knorr Cetina, 1999). Both Knorr Cetina and Gabriel describe the research methods they used to investigate the communication practices of particular organizations.


References

Asbury, H. (1928). The gangs of New York. New York & London,: A. A. Knopf.
Creswell, J. W. (1994). A Framework for the Study. In Research Design: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches (pp. 1-19). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Davenport, T. H., & Prusak, L. (1998). Working Knowledge : How organizations manage what they know. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Gabriel, Y. (2000). Storytelling in organizations : facts, fictions, and fantasies. New York: Oxford University Press.
Goodall, G. (2003). Re: Knowledge management and sharing in construction idustry. Retrieved September 22, 2003, from http://www.brint.com/wwwboard/messages/131246.html
Haynes, J. (2002). Winds of Change. Western Alumni Gazette.
Knorr Cetina, K. (1999). Epistemic cultures: How the sciences make knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Mintzberg, H. (1973). The nature of managerial work. New York: Harper & Row.
Nonaka, I., & Takeuchi, H. (1995). The knowledge-creating company : How Japanese companies create the dynamics of innovation. New York: Oxford University Press.
Polanyi, M. (1967). The tacit dimension. London,: Routledge & K. Paul.
Rezgui, Y. (2001). Review of information and the state of the art of knowledge management practices in the construction industry. Knowledge Engineering Review, 16(3), 241-254.
Talese, G. (2003). The bridge. New York: Walker & Company.
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice : learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press.

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