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Subversive and crowded knowledge networks: Is Africa in or out?
By: Wilson Magaya and Pinimidzai Sithole
Knowledge creation is a discursive process; this is evident in most cultures. Enshrined in these discursive processes are values and norms that guide participation. To support these are rules and regulations for engagement. As participants engage, ideas are generated; experimented on and thus established discourses gain authenticity and evolve whilst new ones emerge. Experimentation and sharing gives the process a platform for identifying, eliciting, capturing and organizing knowledge through critiquing and consensus building. Implementers and scientists use the organized (and unorganized) body of knowledge as reference for application and recording the outcomes from the application, in the process old knowledge is improved and new is captured. An iterative process for generation, accepting and discarding information and knowledge is in place beyond the eye. The shona have the statements, “musha matare”, and the western cultures emphasize and effectively use peer review. In both cultures knowledge becomes acceptable depending on the network of people who agree and accept it as fact. Western culture has harnessed and institutionalized the process in which knowledge evolves from data, information to applied information and ultimately fact through networking and collaboration. To be part of the network one has to qualify. Qualification forms the first barriers to participation. On penetration of a network one encounters a subversive maze of rules and regulations. Taking a case study approach this research report seeks to illustrate the subversive nature of knowledge creation, management and use in society. The black box in development in Africa is the way knowledge develops and is managed not only amongst the indigenous rural communities but also the urbanites and elite including the academic fraternity. The report concludes with the observation that to be able to effectively lay claim to knowledge and knowledge products the African communities from rural right up to regional as well as those in the diaspora need to consciously change the rules of the game on every opportunity available.
Table of Contents
There are many academics and practitioners who see and aspire to articulate the African experiences in an African voice. There are many more scholars and academics as are students in the diaspora of academic institutions with aspirations and a burning passion to contribute to academic discourse from their experiences in the various locations and timeframes that professional dictates and family demands have placed on them.
Knowledge creation is a discursive process; this is evident in most cultures. It is because of this that the kotla3 is so important and takes a prominent role in African society”, and the western cultures use peer review. Within these discussions ideas are generated, experimented on and thus discourses emerge in the iterative process.
The most important thing therefore is to create platforms and fora for scholars from all walks of life in Africa and beyond to come together and think as well as verbalize their tacit knowledge within an African framework for the propagation of African scholarship. This process will see elicitation of knowledge from the established scholars, who are experts in the respective areas as well as the recruitment of scholars to the periphery or/and to the middle of the discourses. In recruitment and promotion sustainability and propagation are taken care of, through a system that embraces innovation as well as grooming. Status is given to those who excel in their fields of study, as long as they are operating within a pan African framework.
Knowledge management: The discursive process
This section will not attempt to define or explain knowledge management per se but make an effort to problematise and provide a critique of the knowledge management discourse. The point of departure here is to question the pre-existing forms of continuity and syntheses with which knowledge management has and is still evolving and accepted without question. The current (primarily western???) tranquility with which dominant knowledge discourses are characterized must be disturbed; we want to demonstrate that they do not come about of themselves, but are always the result of a construction the rules of which must be known and the justifications of which must be scrutinised. In the same contest, we must define in what conditions and in view of which analyses certain of them are legitimate, and we must indicate which of them can never be accepted. How can one explain such knowledge networks? What are they? How can they be defined or limited? What articulation are they capable of? What sub-groups can they give rise to?
For answering these and similar questions, much can be learnt from the mistakes of the past, when infrastructure development tended to be top-down and infrastructure focused, with, at best, the rushed introduction of unsustainable formal parallel institutions, in the process often even exacerbating already existing gender inequities. Also, stories that highlight successful approaches that better fit existing arrangements in Southern African communities, such as the traditional padare, pungwe and ubuntu concepts4, which are hardly understood and appreciated by colleagues from the north have not featured prominently in knowledge and community development, and empowerment discourses. Yet, many questions remain unanswered in public support for crafting local institutions that allow for community-driven and people-centred knowledge networks and systems for communities and scholars from the south, particularly sub-Saharan Africa. Consequently, joining some of the existing networks such as those highlighted in the cases provided in latter sections of this paper remains a major problem for ordinary community members and scholars from the south. A major challenge is not at community-level but at the intermediate and top levels, where the current mandates, agendas and reporting structures of researchers, governments, donor agencies, line agencies, private service providers and international programs often jeopardize providing for needs-based accountable and participatory knowledge communities and networks. The few successes often remain islands of success in oceans of misery and cannot be out- and up-scaled. The question to ask is: what lessons can Africa learn from established and successful networks from the north and vice versa?
Mechanisms for filtering knowledge: The iterative process of knowledge management
Identify, Elicit and Capture
This process involves mapping of the key processes within society and categorizing them into disciplines. Categorization into disciplines allows ascertaining of the origins and nature as well as the definitive characteristics of the processes going on already within the academic fraternity. The identification process therefore is important in that we are able to identify top performers and the work they do.
The most critical process is eliciting information and knowledge from the experts be they academic or practitioners. The first step is affording them the opportunity to verbalize it. This can be done in several ways that include publications, presentations to other scholars and practitioners thus creating communities of practice, teaching others or/and preaching. The process of eliciting has to include mentoring, sharing and distribution activities by the top performers. These activities span from writers’ workshops, seminars, workshops, ethnographic work and publication.
The performance of the experts in all walks of life must be captured to ensure the preservation and continued success of society. The elicitation phase extracts substantial amounts of information and knowledge within which lie rules and guidelines to the decision making processes. The implicit rules and guides maybe in the form of theories, patterns, best practices, experiences and tools and methods used. Capturing creates a permanent record of the expertise within society; it is the memory of society recorded at a specific time for posterity. Having captured there is room for others in the future to pick up from where one left and add value. To make it easy for others to use in future it must then be organized.
Organizing and Applying Knowledge
The captured information and knowledge is organized. The librarian’s role is not to be understated here. This involves categorization into disciplines and storage in a systematic and coherent form. It allows knowledge or should I say society’s intellectual capital to be preserved for future use in various areas of application. The process of knowledge organization encompasses, various activities, such as disciplinary networking and collaboration through meetings workshops and conferences, teaching and action research. Knowledge and information are best organized through application. Organization also involves teaching and learning as this is done in an orderly way through discipline and subject categories.
Through application the users are able to do what the experts do and the experts have an opportunity to sharpen the work and knowledge as they bring more and more of their tacit knowledge into the realm of explicit and implicit knowledge. The purpose of knowledge management is application. In order to apply knowledge a process of teaching, coaching and mentorship has to be in place to support application. In its most basic form application demands continuous training and mentorship thus short courses and apprenticeships are important. The learning material should contain content derived from local research integrated with global trends. Currently there is a tendency to teach content with very little local content especially case studies. Application demands recorded information for portability and ease of sharing and distribution.
Keeping Records and Sharing
The recording enhances the knowledge base and further populates it. The recording process keeps and maintains the known history of performance, the activities and achievements of society. The recording gives space for learning and sharing. It is the recording of experiences that brings out the tacit as well as implicit knowledge into explicit knowledge making it portable and easy to share and distribute. Recording is an important activity in that recorded knowledge can be manipulated into many forms for mentoring teaching and preaching purposes. A knowledge base containing information and the rules for decision making is invaluable to any progressive society. It is important therefore to ensure that there is a way of recording knowledge regardless of its form. It can always be organized to suite the needs of part or the whole of society.
Having recorded knowledge a repository of the knowledge has to be created. This can be in many forms. Recorded knowledge can be stored in the form it was recorded by users, but this alone is not good enough. Knowledge must be shared. Sharing it gives an opportunity for more knowledge that is tacit to come to the fore and so add value to the recorded knowledge. In sharing postulations new arising are exposed for critiquing from other high performers in the discipline therefore reaching a consensus. As more and more people in society accept the knowledge it becomes fact and so forms the base of known fact. Fact is the most important form of knowledge for mentoring and teaching. A knowledge base can be in the form of publications, briefs, journals and books. The collection of books, journals, briefs, minutes, proceedings and records form the intellectual capital of society. Sharing new recordings or newly captured knowledge makes available new learning materials. To ensure continuity evaluation and improvement are key in the knowledge management as a societal good.
Evaluating and improving the processes
In-built in the whole process is an evaluation system that enables selection of relevant knowledge. The evaluation of new knowledge as well as the evolution of information and old knowledge into fact is important to ensure that the intellectual capital of the community or society is intone with the needs of the community or society. Evaluation must be carried out continuously to make sure that the effectiveness of the process/frameworks, the quality of the products; both written/recorded and the student/new experts, effectiveness of the tools being used are monitored and understood. Ultimately the evaluation of the performance of the community or society as a result of applying knowledge in the negotiation and experimentation with life is important.
Continuous improvement of the knowledge quality as well as the processes and systems for capturing and recording is important to ensure that the society’s intellectual capital is maintained. Improvement should be in the existing knowledge base as well as its application. In application new knowledge is generated and the old evolves into fact. Continuous improvement encourages greater use and sharing of knowledge by society if is well grounded in learning theory and allows for life-long learning. Continuous improvement and life long learning form the basis for higher individual performance. This further improves the intellectual capital of the community or society and so the cycle goes on.
Forward to the past and back to the future: is the International Village University (IVU) an option for Africa?
There are huge amounts of information and knowledge that have been generated at our universities and colleges as well as within Africa’s rural communities. The most important activity in any knowledge management project is documentation. The rural areas of Africa are home to knowledge resources that have persisted through oral tradition. Intellectual capital has been preserved through an actor oriented system. With the advent of the modern school introduced by the European to Africa, the knowledge management systems have been marginalized. As a first step documentation and conversion of documents into more portable and easily distributable formats is important to Africa and its scholars. This includes identification, collection, organization, conversion, translation and distribution of working papers, briefs, edited works at Universities and colleges and within rural communities generated by academics at all levels. The challenge here is to convert and make available (in a palatable format) shelved research reports, working papers, thesis and dissertations from learning institutions, particularly universities, to a wider audience. Documentation of development models and knowledge residing in the actors (living libraries) on whom the African rural communities have proffered custodianship of the community and society’s intellectual capital is of paramount importance. Modern scientists (academics and researchers) are good at their work and write for a particular audience…what we can call preaching to the converted.
Building a Village University that brings together Universities on the continent whilst at the same time appreciating the importance of the libraries walking around in predominantly rural Africa can be a small step in the right direction. The living libraries are those members of African Society both men and women, young and old to whom African societal intellectual memory has been entrusted. The goal is to integrate and inculcate this aspect into teaching and learning so that researchers, community members (women and men) and academics can communicate their results and experiences to a wider audience including each other whilst mentoring and grooming the young to carry the torch of keeping society’s intellectual capital intact. It has to become part of our tradition; therefore it maybe important to look at or culture and see what already exists that may be used as a starting point.
The living libraries, through the International Village University (IVU) will work on already produced documents to ensure that they are organized, applied in experience so that new experiences resulting from their application can be recorded and shared thus improving the existing body of knowledge. It will also work with case studies. Here high performers are identified who have not published but are repositories of the community’s collective knowledge. It is important; I hazard to say that engagement rules have to be changed to allow the living libraries to form part of the teaching and mentoring resources of the Village University. Students will document stories and experiences. These will be organized and stored, thus forming the baseline database for new discourses and disciplines and therefore designs of new curricula for teaching and learning on the continent.
To be able to develop a knowledge development and management agenda for Africa that can be led by the African from the local right up to the global level there is need to take a look at the way we are participating in the knowledge management processes as well as the institutions that we are participating in. a view of the networks and the gongs on in these hopefully will give the African insight into what is going on around them. We took time to reflect on the goings on within one of the networks we have participated in for the last 7 years not only as participants but as part of the team that managed the biennial meeting of the network in 2002.
IASC: The Case study
The international Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) is a network that facilitates the meeting of minds in the study of the Commons. It holds a conference every two years, whereby scholars and practitioners from all walk of life come together to share experiences and have an opportunity to network with colleagues. Because of shear size and spread of membership the association holds regional meetings each year whereby members and other interested parties take the opportunity to network and develop discourses that are relevant and peculiar to the localities. The network publishes a book every two years, a journal every quarter and has a huge open archive of publications, housed at Indiana University in the United States.
The last two meetings; Victoria Falls 2002, Oaxaca 2004 saw me try and connect to the network at the level of the erstwhile actors who form the glue that brings the network together. I had envisaged that approaching the most successful scholars and publishers I would, with persistence, be able to break the ice. This however was not the case. Every avenue I tried to go up was blocked and there was no one to entertain my enthusiasm.
The frustrations and my need to be accepted as well as the experiences of the last year got me thinking. I noted with concern that there had not been any Africa Regional Meeting for as long as I have known IASC. Over the years the representation of African scholars did not have any notable figures in the study of the commons nor a clear agenda to offer to the network.
I decided to look into it, and so this study evolved as I attended conferences and workshops. In order to participate one has to understand what they have become part of. In that vain I began a quest that culminated in my attending IASCP 2006 in Bali Indonesia with a different agenda. I wanted to know what the association was and why it exists. I wanted to figure out who is in control and why they are in control and finally how I could join and influence the discourses. My quest was guided by the following questions;
The International Association for the study of the Commons is a community of practice.. The institutional arrangement sees multiple regional meetings that culminate in a global conference once every two years. It is a vehicle or should I say mechanism for knowledge creation, institutionalization and evolution of knowledge to wisdom through actor networking that researches, documents, verifies and validates and then seeks authenticity and acceptance into the existing body of knowledge on the commons in particular and social sciences in general.
IASC affords scholars and practitioners, particularly the established to bring new knowledge, get it accepted by a large network of scholars, practitioners, affiliates and members of the network. Through use tacit knowledge is brought into the explicit form, and scholars document and organize and store it in a form that allows referencing and improvement by others within and outside the network, thus common knowledge is born. At the interface between experience and enquiry the scholar documents, validates and discusses. Through discussion information and knowledge is filtered and validated as true or false and so given authenticity.
The IASCP processes involve formal and informal systems that ensure creation acceptance and institutionalization for sustainability. This creation process is enshrined in the teaching and learning process, the acceptance is in the teaching and learning as well as practicing fraternity and institutionalization lies in the creation not of new knowledge and wisdoms but institutions and networks. How is it sustainable?
I think the process is sustained by the fact that it answers the most basic of human needs from cradle to the grave; “ACCEPTANCE” it start at the individual and demands collective acknowledgement thus ‘one is because they are’ one cannot be a scholar of note without others and others cannot be scholars without starting from one. “UBUNTU”
Knowledge creation is a discursive process; this is evident in most cultures. It is because of this that the shona have the statements, “musha matare”, and the western cultures use peer review. Within these discussions ideas are generated, experimented on and thus discourses emerge in the iterative process.
The attendance profile of the conference was interesting. There were a lot of internationally acclaimed scholars, authors of numerous books and articles in the world’s best journals and thought leaders in several spheres of social sciences. The majority of participants however were budding scholars, authors practicing as well as social scientists, myself included. The conference runs for a full working week with Thursdays set aside for field trips. Each day is broken down into series which are broken down to panels and within each panel a minimum of four presentations are slotted. The series run along thematic areas and panels/sessions are for papers that speak to a particular area of the theme.
Participant attendance of sessions was not uniform. Some sessions and at times particular presentations attracted more attendees than others. Participants tended to be attracted to series and sessions where famous personalities were presenting, chairing discussants or merely attending. Adventure and fame seekers attended the peripheral sessions and panels which tended to have some very practical and well thought out papers. Within the group we deemed to be adventure and fame seekers were some students of the leading actors within the network. One had a sense that there was an assessment and recruitment process from the periphery towards the centre.
At the centre of the conference are the presentations by the famous and stalwart figures of the commons study network. These were informal and tended to be platforms for discussing broad frameworks and theoretical approaches, experience and general direction of the discourses on the commons. At the periphery were presentations by up and coming scholars and those by unknown or should I say aspiring actors whose ideas showed enough innovation to contribute to the body of knowledge of the commons. Some presentations were funded by erstwhile scholars along a theoretical approach they may have designed or were in the process of critiquing. This is way the leading actors within the network bring their ideas to the fore. In a way by sponsoring the work of other PhDs, scholars and practitioners they created enough discussion on their ideas for them to take centre stage in the commons discourse.
There is an apparent almost subversive process of enrolment into the centre from the periphery of young scholars. This process however did not look like it was based on merit but rather patronage. The school one attends is important, for example if the school has famous professors who participate within the network then scholars from this school are more likely to be accepted and attendance in their presentations is generally high. We believe this is so because students tend to propagate the thoughts of their mentors. It was apparent that participants are interested in hearing the thoughts and views of the mentors through their students as well.
Some scholars presented in panels where their mentors were either chairing or discussants. During question time the mentor would intervene where they felt their student could not and so the nurturing and positioning of one’s students to be part of the network’s centre proceeded. In their presentation these scholars refer to the well established professors and make it clear that they are linked, in so doing their work is associated with the successes of their mentors. They are accepted as part of the network of scholars that interact with their mentors beyond the Commons network. They are not necessarily at par but every other established scholar in the network takes it as a responsibility to take part in their work because it is a piece of the mentor’s work.
For the unknown enthusiastic scholar, be they young or old, participation in these established scholar panels means getting on stage and making the right noise to be noticed. Critique or support wisely and you maybe enrolled and maintained at the periphery until such a time you qualify to come to the centre. What is the qualification? I asked and one scholar told me a trick that could get me noticed if I worked hard. Don’t be afraid to publish and circulate your publications for critique by the best of them. Before the conference which is only a culmination of at least two years work circulate your work to the network for comments, always solicit for the help of the network. Some one will respond and give you advice; you will be included eventually into the panels of the leading actors and may eventually run your own panels. You can also target your participation by working on the popular topics of the thought leaders, for the 2006 IASC conference it was “…….the multiplicity of levels of management and the interaction of these with performance”.
I believe the network sustains itself through recognition of exceptional performance at the individual level. A typical example was the tribute to a scholar and mentor by a group of Cornell Alumni whom are in powerful professional positions in various geographical locations in the world.
Tribute to an Exceptional Mentor
This panel consisted of leading IASC actors with influential positions in Universities, donor agencies and civic organizations as well as the private sector. These leaders apparently pledge allegiance to one mentor and teacher for their success. Each one stood up and gave an in-depth history of their relationship with their mentor and teacher and attributed many of their successes to his leadership and mentorship.
It was clear that at that moment as his students were presenting their life-time work to a fully packed room the mentor’s network was expanding and so were his thoughts. In the audience were authorities in the social sciences whom also took time to pay tribute to the group’s mentor. The most outstanding points to come out of this panel were the mentorship style and strategies of this Cornell professor.
All the panelists came up with some insights they took away from their mentor which has guided them through their professional careers. The key to effective scholarship and professional success lies in the following;
This panel was so well attended that time was extended and it took up twice as much time as all other panels. I was however struck by the lack of publication or write ups on presentations of that session. Taking a closer look I realized that because of the intrinsic value of knowledge the group was actually subversive and immensely powerful. The network is an affinity group that is potentially subversive in nature.
Observations from the IASC Case Study
It seemed that the African scholar is not conscious of their role in the global knowledge networks, if they are conscious then there are challenges that affect the role they play in these networks. The most outstanding challenges for the African scholars that we observed were how to build civic science that eventually makes scientists redundant. The nature of scholarship seems to be creating elitism and thus alienating those who have embraced scholarship from the communities who live the models developed in academia and eventually have to deal with the implications of such development models on one side whilst marginalizing them on the global arena due to a lack of resources.
If the education system is alienating the educated from those who apply what has been learned how does African scholarship contribute to knowledge production from experiences? There is need to rethink the constituency to whom we are accountable in knowledge generation and management processes in Africa.
Knowledge is highly political, what intrinsic anti-political strategies are we putting in place and are inherent in the knowledge creation and management processes in Africa? African scholars and development practitioners need to be able to unlearn what has been learnt, because it is this that becomes the major barrier to innovation and new creations. Knowledge is power thus it is highly political, so at times scientists as individuals pull back from the heat. There is need to stand the heat and therefore change the dynamics in Africa.
Scholars, researchers, academics and development practitioners are neither saints nor devils…but who are they (we)? The prevailing and dominant discourses and paradigms in knowledge management, as illustrated earlier in this paper, provide little space and incentives for scholars, researchers and practitioners from the south to articulate, inform debate and discuss knowledge issues from a pan-African perspective.5 Knowledge is not a neutral issue especially for scholars and practitioners from the south where dissenting voices are often marginalized particularly through blackmail…either one follows the one religiously and get rewarded or…Resources are the best bait used in rewarding followers or ‘punishing’ dissenting voices. Power contests create hegemonic states in the global knowledge management processes that sees Africans participating at the periphery or the centre depending on their relevance to on going discourses.
What now for the African scholar…?
It is time that African scholars create own affinity group, like the Asians infiltrate existing affinity groups and contribute towards building a pan African knowledge base within existing groups, understand and create own discourses with others or create new ones and/or take the bull by the horns and change the rules of the game, change the discourses.
Submitted by storytelling on 21 May 2009 - 8:34am. categories [ ]