• August 4th, 2020

Opinion - Embrace subjective knowledge to enhance organisational performance

Have you ever wondered why many of our organisations do not function at the level that they should? The answer lies partly in our present understanding of organisations, as it determines what happens in them. Many of us do not understand the relationship between workers, work and organisations. So many of our organisations deteriorate into stunted and less productive social spaces, deprived of the benefits of human creativity and innovation. 

This is because such organisations are unable to use the knowledge, which employees apply when they enact their jobs intuitions, insights, values, judgements and other subjective knowledge aspects. The reasons why we fail to use subjective knowledge is that the main management thinking within many of our organisation’s privileges objectivity.  It is rooted in objectivist beliefs. The latter regard knowledge as independent of social human beings. Moreover, the knowledge, which counts most, is formal, quantifiable hard data as well as policies and regulations (codified knowledge).  

As a result, there isn’t enough space in many of our organisations for personal knowledge use to shape and reshape our practices.  Although subjective knowledge aspects contribute to value creation, we do not use them enough at the moment. Factors that have fostered such attitudes are many. The first one is the lack of understanding of the need to clarify how we view organisations in terms of their existence. And our understanding of how employees relate to their work and organisations. The second factor is the anti-subjective knowledge crusade perpetuated by education and training. Education and training also emphasise objectivity. They too subscribe to the objectivist philosophy.

The third culprit is the tendency of bureaucratic organisations to exploit objective knowledge at the expense of subjective knowledge resources. Bureaucracies by their nature ignore subjective aspects of knowledge. Because of the prevailing understanding and the propensity of bureaucratic organisations described earlier, many of our organisations have become blind to the fact that in the process of enacting their work, employees may shape and reshape what they do, their practices, (e.g. research, strategy formulation or even writing a report). When employees interpret the task at hand, they bring their knowledge to bear on what they are doing, including their values. Some managers argue that employees are there to implement plans, which is true.  But those managers focus on the percentage of achievement in terms of the so-called performance. They do not understand how employees intersect with their jobs and organisations− the processes involved that lead to outcomes such as the activation of background knowledge, which contribute to the enactment of work.  Also, they do not understand that in the process of doing their work employees may reshape their practice and organisations. Therefore, many managers fail to see how employees reproduce practices and organisations. This has led to employees not impacting organisations in a meaningful and productive way through practices and knowledge creation and application.  This is because employees who concentrate at a superficial level cannot bring about improvements, which renew and change organisations, which explains why many of our organisations stagnate and eventually atrophy. 

In addition, employees are sometimes constraint by the existing practices of organisations, including policies. For instance, sometimes employees cannot employ their knowledge because the existing knowledge within the organisation goes against what employees know or what they believe in or it is contrary to what works in practice. This makes it difficult for employees to deviate from what is prescribed or the existing practices, even if they know that the policy or plan is misguided or its assumptions have not been thought through thoroughly. The outcome of this is conflict within the employee, which leads to frustration. If exposed to this kind of employment environment for an extended period, employees may experience self-doubt and reduced productivity. But how can we counteract the dominance of objectivism, which is preventing our organisations from benefiting from our human capital? There are several steps we can to take to tackle this problem.  At a theoretical level, first, we need to theorise more about organisations in terms of their existence. Are they independent of social actors - employees? Do they exist on their own? How are they maintained? How do they intersect with employees? These are some of the questions we need to ask to understand the relationship between organisations and employees. And to be able to appreciate the intricate relationship among them. 

Moreover, we will be able to understand how employees shape and reshape organisations and the other way round. Secondly, at a more practical level, we need to adopt a more flexible approach to the implementation of plans to allow employees to apply their knowledge to shape and reshape what they do, especially in this current business environment characterised by constant change, in which plans become fast outdated. Many of our organisations are flooded with objectivist views, which deny them the benefit of subjective knowledge. Subjective knowledge is critical to value creation and the provision of quality services. Hence, we should create room within our organisations to allow human creativity and innovation to flourish through subjective knowledge, or remain trapped in Max Weber’s legacy, the bureaucratic structures, which deny employees opportunities to exercise the full potential of their faculties. 

Staff Reporter
2020-07-21 16:09:26 | 14 days ago

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