Knowing – some more…

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When I finished up my post of 6 August on Knowing, I mentioned that I had just come across another article on Knowing by Orlikowski (2002).  I have now read that article – it contained some interesting stuff particularly in its Introduction and Implications sections.

Orlikowski offers up a perspective on ‘knowing in practice’ that she herself finds an additional, complementary perspective to the two ‘traditional’ perspectives on the way that organisational research treats knowledge in organisations.

A lot of studies and indeed a lot of the everyday language we use in relation to knowledge management, are founded on a premise of ‘knowledge as organisational asset’.  From this perspective, we build it, capture it, store it, catalogue it, transfer it, add to a body of it etc etc.  It essentially exists as a resource that gets ‘used’ by the organisation in achieving what it needs to achieve and needs to be added to, or changed, for the organisation to achieve different things.

A second ‘traditional’ perspective takes more of a HR stance with knowledge embedded in human resources.  This ‘knowledge as disposition’ approach makes us think differently about knowledge management – recruitment, induction, personal development and retention being key concerns.

The perspective that Orlikowski offers up is a “knowledge as doing” perspective.  Here you pay attention to the role of situated action in constituting knowing.  Orlikowski draws on ‘systems thinkers’ such as Schon and Maturana to emphasise that knowing is in our actions – knowing and practice mutually construct each other.

In my last ‘Knowing’ post, I drew on the work of Cook and Brown.  Orlikowski distinguishes her view from theirs in that they see ‘tacit knowledge’ as something drawn on and used as a tool in knowing whereas she says that tacit knowledge is a form of knowing – you cannot separate it from practice.

Orlikowski’s perspective also draws on the work of Giddens, a sociologist that I have heard mentioned a number of times, but not ever read his work directly.  In this view the enduring nature of institutions happens because humans continually remake them as they do what they do.

Orlikowski explains that in this perspective knowledge is not ‘out there’ (in artefacts or databases) or ‘in here’ (in brains or bodies) but rather knowing is an ongoing social accomplishment, constituted and reconstituted in everyday practice.

This means organisational competences or capabilities are provisional – an active, recurrent accomplishment – if we experience them as being achieved again and again over time, tend to think of them as ‘given’ and forget they are a social accomplishment.  As we improvise new practices or develop new ways of interpreting and experiencing the world we modify knowing i.e we change what we do as we do what we do.


– From this perspective, skillful performance becomes an active accomplishment – an emergent property – so need to concentrate on the conditions in which skillful performance is likely to arise.

– No longer think about ‘transferring best practice’ – more about helping people to adopt contextual and provisional ‘useful practices’.

– only understand knowing by observing practices – this is an implication on how do research.

I really like this view – it simply resonates with me.  I also liked the way Orlikowski writes – there are some good ‘choice phrases’ in her paper – and some good quotes from Schon, Maturana and Giddens.

She also reminded me of the work of JC Spender who wrote about the knowledge-based theory of the firm – I covered this in B823 Managing knowledge and remember there was an interview with him (another potential set of materials to revisit!!!).  I liked this quote from him that she uses:

“knowledge is less about truth and reason and more about the practice of intervening knowledgeably and purposefully in the world.” (Spender 1996)



Orlikowski, W.J. (2002). Knowing in practice: enacting a collective capability in distributed organizing. Organization Science, 13(3), 249-273.

Spender, J.C. (1996) “Organizational knowledge, learning and memory: three concepts in search of a theory”, Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 9 (1), pp.63 – 78

2 thoughts on “Knowing – some more…

  1. Helen, I too did Managing Knowledge. A couple of points that relate to your discussion here that I took out of the readings in particular was the tacit – explicit distinction of Polanyi and the expansion of this by Tsoukas when he talked about explicit knowledge can only be understood when brought forth or brought into distinction from that which is tacit (terribly quoted, all my books are at work so I cant reference again). To me this is action and situation orientated – in the act of knowing something we bring it forward into focus.

    Second, building on the implications regarding “transfering best practice”, something that is promoted at work most of the time as critical, a couple of comments come to ind, building on Ray Ison’s comemnts on agricultural development (Ison and Russell, book is Agricultural Extension and Development: breaking out of knowledge transfer traditions) and on social learning is how learning is a social practice and an emergen tproperty of experiencing others’ actions and knowing – needs expanding on more but will have to be another time.


  2. Just a thought about Best Practice as i am reading Wenger at the moment. You can see it as the reification/participation interface – there has to be an interaction between the Thing (Best Practice) and the people in order for it to have any meaning. And if it has no meaning, noone is going to touch it in a serious way.

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