The Acquisition of Knowledge

Things are becoming slicker and more professional, but also, at times, more second-rate. Businesses and governments boast of their new professional management. But poor documentaries are coming from good TV companies, dangerous drilling decisions from major oil companies, idiotic investments from leading development agencies. There are bad planning decisions in market towns, bad environmental policies for farms, counter-productive decisions in public health. And it is difficult not to feel that these positives and negatives are related.

In the BBC, the NHS, the police and the Foreign Office, the number of managers has ballooned over the last fifteen years. This happened because, often with good reason, we lost confidence in the old way of running things. The old system included elitism, waste, inflexibility, and terrible policies. Many old directors were poor colleagues, bad administrators, and intimidating for clients or staff. Accountancy and personnel processes have now become tighter. And we have (to express it in the new jargon) more consistency in policies, more diversity in staffing, more transparency, clearer benchmarks, more staff satisfaction, more accessible public-facing programs.

Yet, all of us still witness the shoddiest policies and projects. And this is, I suspect, because the new idea of management, despite all its merit, has displaced a respect for a certain kind of knowledge. The things for which people are now selected, the qualities for which they are praised, the criteria on which they are promoted, are not related to deep or long experience. They are instead almost exclusively about “core competencies” in management. Boards in the civil service, for example, are now prohibited from taking anything except “core competencies” into account when making a promotion decision.

All the institutions continue – often sincerely – to believe that none of this is at the expense of knowledge. They point out that there is no logical reason why one shouldn’t be a good manager and deeply knowledgeable. And indeed in theory that is true. But in practice the new emphasis is changing an entire culture, very quickly. Younger entrants take the hint from the promotion boards, steer away from jobs on the ground, and push to get into management as soon as possible. They have less time, opportunity, and incentive to develop deep knowledge. And when they are promoted they have less understanding of its importance, or respect for those that do.

Within living memory, you could find many curators in the Tate gallery, who knew everything about Stubbs; people who knew each storm-drain and river bank in their part of Cumbria; diplomats who spoke fluent classical Arabic; BBC sound crews, who had worked in fifty countries; BP engineers, who understood the dangers of drilling in the Gulf of Mexico; and foreign correspondents, who had spent years reporting abroad. These people had learnt through concrete examples. They had discovered through direct experience, that that the world is difficult to describe, and easily misunderstood. They had become wary of abstract theories, and of reality reduced to numbers. But all these people now sense that their skills were no longer rewarded. As they lose power and status, so they lose the chance to defend, or justify the importance of their knowledge. Under our new management culture, there are fewer old Tate curators, traditional Cumbrian road-crews, Arabists, soundmen, engineers, or foreign correspondents. Those that survive are often treated as ‘dead wood’. And the institutions of knowledge connected with them, have also withered: libraries, and archives sold off, training and research establishments closed, older staff replaced with consultants and contractors.

Today, instead of deferring to long practical experience, and deep knowledge of a particular place, managers prefer to implement ‘best practice’ from somewhere else; they impose theoretical models with less and less understanding of what does not work on the ground; and they justify decisions with abstract metrics, and obscure concepts. And as more and more positions are filled with people with this mentality, there are fewer people, with the confidence, or seniority, to expose the shallowness of this approach. Our culture is beginning to forget what deep knowledge and contact with the ground looked like, or why it mattered.

The solution must be to give power back to people with deep knowledge. But it won’t happen through running training courses. You need to force institutions to change their promotion criteria, and put those with knowledge, judgement and experience back at the very top. Some of them might not be ideal managers: they might be less popular with staff, unappealing to stake-holders, more difficult to work with. But they can offer things we have forgotten how to measure: not just long experience, but rigour, a sense of vocation, and unexpected frames of reference. They might have prevented some of our recent mistakes. They could certainly bring more flexible and inventive ways of engaging with the world. And we cannot afford to continue to ignore them.

Print Friendly and PDF