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Knowledge Management: Taylorism updated?

March 24, 2008


The term “knowledge management” is one normally associated with the idea of the learning organisation – the kind of 21st century network enterprise that is equipped to take full advantage of the internet’s potential to make work a fulfilling learning experience for its workers. But according to Knowledge in Question: from Taylorism to Knowledge Management by Anne de Vos et al, knowledge management (KM) is in a direct line of descent from the soulless ‘scientific management’ prescriptions of the arch-theorist of early 20th century industrial mass production, Frederick Winslow Taylor.

The parallels are certainly striking. Taylorism and KM both attempt to solve the problem of transforming tacit, interiorised knowledge into explicit, collective knowledge, which is then available for the purpose of maximising efficiency across the organisation. Both approaches see the enterprise as a thing in itself, a repository of knowledge above and beyond the separate individuals who make it up. Both explicitly assume that enterprises are at least in principle zones free of social conflict, in which it is taken for granted that it’s in everyone’s interest for individual workers’ knowledge to be exteriorised, rendered explicit, codified and managed in the interests of market performance and profitability.

Both approaches reify the idea of knowledge, by seeing it as something that can be dissociated from individuals, analysed, formalised and stored. Finally, both approaches produce shifts in corporate power relationships as a result of the shifting patterns of knowledge ‘ownership’. Taylorism creates a new management layer of process experts, the codifiers and standardisers of shopfloor knowledge; while KM may give rise to another new group of experts in the form of information or knowledge managers, responsible for the efficient pooling and exchange of the organisation’s collective understanding. The paper concludes that

Despite the separation in time and the great disparity in the contexts in which each appeared, the work of Taylor and work done on KM both share a certain vision of the world.

Fascinating stuff…

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