Managing local practices in global contexts
Managing local practices in global contexts

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Managing local practices in global contexts

1 The management of local knowledge-generating practices

1.1 The wider context

This course explores the management of local knowledge-generating practices with regard to their wider contexts. Although these local practices might be considered in terms of individuals acting and thinking as if they were autonomous, independent agents interacting with other agents, such practices are simultaneously shaped by shared skills and understandings. As Karl Marx pointed out, when the hero of Daniel Defoe's (1660–1731) novel Robinson Crusoe (Defoe, 1994, first published in 1719) was shipwrecked on a remote island, he managed to rescue items from the wreck – a watch, ledger, pen and ink – and recreate the life of a ‘true-born Briton’ (Marx, quoted in Brown and Duguid, 2002, p. 139). Crusoe encountered aggressive locals – ‘savages’ – who practised cannibalism, but he rescued one of their prisoners. He called him ‘Friday’ and tutored the former cannibal in the largely Calvinist Protestant work ethic. Thus, Crusoe struck a minor blow for globalisation: Friday became enrolled in the global expansion of the British way of life.

Although Crusoe was the sole survivor of his shipwreck, he did not confront the challenge of survival without the benefit of a language and culture. His mental state was not that of the human mind at birth: a blank sheet of paper that was empty of innate ideas. On the contrary, Crusoe was able to think and reason in the manner of a respectable member of seventeenth-century English society. He was born in 1632 in York, England, to a ‘good family’. His father, an immigrant merchant of German origin, wanted him to take up the law, but he went to sea. Eventually, Crusoe became established as a successful plantation owner in Brazil – and the shipwreck that plunged him into isolation occurred on a mission to West Africa, where he planned to acquire slaves for his plantation. Hence, what he had learned, as an upstanding member of English society, seafarer and expatriate plantation owner, filtered what he saw on the island and thereby guided his sensemaking and actions. To be sure, the English foundations of his mental ‘frame of reference’ evolved during the 28 years, two months and nineteen days that he spent on the island. Yet, the ‘savages’ whom he encountered knew nothing of England. Their behaviour had been forged in a context that was hitherto untouched by the influence of British society and included practices – such as cannibalism – that were predicated on different norms and expectations.

Crusoe's relationship with Friday was not a matter of two independent people meeting for a rational discussion in a neutral environment; rather, it involved a fundamental clash of cultures as Calvinist values collided with cannibalism. Crusoe's perspective on what constituted acceptable ‘rules of practice’ gained the upper hand as Friday started to conform to his expectations. English imperialism – aided by firearms technology that Crusoe had salvaged from the wreck – triumphed: Friday renounced cannibalism and learned to call Crusoe ‘master’. Nevertheless, Crusoe's globalisation of the English way of life involved mutual engagement with Friday: they were both enrolled in the joint enterprise of survival on a remote island that was visited by cannibals. Crusoe taught Friday to speak English and took pleasure in his progress:

Besides the pleasure of talking to him, I had a singular satisfaction in the fellow himself; his simple, unfeigned honesty appeared to me more and more every day, and I began really to love the creature; and on his side, I believe he loved me more than it was possible for him ever to love anything before.

(Defoe, 1994, p. 210)

For his part, Friday possessed highly relevant knowledge about the habits of local cannibals and taught Crusoe survival skills. Their mutually interdependent struggle for survival generated shared experience that was held in common by both men. This provided a common reference point for making sense of the here-and-now and anticipating what might happen next. Gradually, Crusoe and Friday developed a stock of common experience that included language. Suddenly, they could talk about a world that went beyond the here-and-now: they could speculate about the past and future, along with events in other places.

Eventually, Crusoe managed to rejoin seventeenth-century English society and was able to recount his adventures, but the audience's capacity to align its imagined impressions of life on the island with Crusoe's experience would have been limited. In an era when most people spent most of their lives within a day's travel of where they were born, and (given the limited role of print media) most information moved by word of mouth, constructing accurate images of life elsewhere would have been a formidable challenge. Crusoe's story illustrates how different rules of practice in other places can allow activities – such as cannibalism – that were absolutely abhorrent and unimaginable in civilised English society. Yet, the same ‘civilised’ society accepted the practice of slavery.

Social norms are not absolute, universal or unchanging. Progress in science and technology, for example, raises new possibilities – such as human cloning – that challenge the viability of established norms. Institutional rules of practice, or what Nobel Laureate in Economics, Douglass North (1990), has famously called ‘the rules of the game’, comprise informal and formal constraints that ‘create order and reduce uncertainty in exchange’ (North, 1991, p. 97). Institutions link past practices to the present and future but, in the process, the rules of play are themselves subject to new interpretations, evolution and change.

The roots of the word ‘institution’ derive from the Latin instituere meaning establish, arrange or teach. Although ‘institution’ is used in a variety of ways, our principal concern in this course is with institutions as established laws, practices or customs. Making sense of different institutional contexts, and the processes by which they are situated in their wider environment, raises important questions about the way in which boundaries between different ways of doing things are achieved and maintained. Where does one context stop and another start? Who is inside or outside of any given context? Although institutions are often associated with the sovereignty of nation states, any space (real, virtual or a combination of the two) within which individuals are meaningfully connected embodies the potential to generate its own institutional rules of practice. You may be familiar with the Western concept of ‘communities of practice’, this course draws on the examples of Japanese ba (which roughly means ‘place’, with the connotation that it is the ‘interaction space’ for purposeful activity) and Chinese guanxi (‘relationship’) as examples of bounded zones of communication, in non-Western contexts, that rely heavily on highly aligned tacit knowing among insiders who know each other well.

Knowledge needs knowers – people – who possess the capacity to think and act in any given context. While certain aspects of the knowledge possessed by people involves conscious thoughts that can be represented as information and communicated to others (so-called ‘explicit knowledge’), Michael Polanyi (1974, 1983) argued that the capacity to think and act in any given time and place is always guided by tacit knowing. Although we cannot be conscious of tacit knowing in any objective sense, its existence is revealed in our ability to ‘do things’ – such as recognising our friend's face or breaking into spontaneous laughter – even though we are not conscious of how we recognised our friend or why we laughed. Of course, we can construct after-the-event explanations that describe our friend's facial features or explain the basis of our humour, but this will be, at best, only a partial picture: ‘we can know more than we can tell’ (Polanyi, 1983, p. 4, original emphasis). Furthermore, these constructions of what we might have known tacitly are always historical, whereas the actual occurrence of tacit knowing is always instantaneous: it is situated in the here-and-now of specific circumstances.

Tacit knowing can be honed by ‘doing things’ in practice: practice makes people better at things – if you practice mental arithmetic or a particular type of snooker shot, your performance tends to improve. As Gill has pointed out in his commentary on Polanyi's philosophy, we learn by doing:

In learning a new dance step, a new language, or how to think philosophically, there simply is no substitute for practice. We imitate, are corrected, try again and again, get corrected again, and gradually get better at the task. Perhaps the ultimate example of this process is exhibited by those folks who are trained to be ‘chicken sexers’.

Even though there is no simple way to tell the sex of a tiny chick, people can be taught to sort the males from the females by apprenticing themselves to those who already know how to do so. Their awareness becomes a function of their activity.

(Gill, 2000, p. 43)

Gill's example of the ‘chicken sexer’ might also be used to reflect on the difference between knowledge that is possessed by individuals and the significance of an alignment of knowing across the wider community of people who can differentiate competently between male and female chicks. Individuals learn the craft by being apprenticed to experienced chicken sexers. Thus, they would have something in common, for example, if they struck up a chance conversation with somebody who also turned out to be a chicken sexer. In a similar way, children learn to speak by generating knowledge that is aligned with those who already share the capacity to use the language in question. At one level, language might be associated with the words of an individual speaker, but its development and use depends upon a collective dimension. Communication implies that message senders and receivers share the capacity to interpret information signals in a roughly similar way. (A personal or ‘private language’ would be a contradiction in terms, if it could not be used to communicate with anybody else.)

According to Etienne Wenger (2003, p. 80), shared experience within a community of practice generates a ‘shared repertoire’ of communal resources that can be used as tools for enabling future practice. Arguably, such tools could be divided into an information dimension – such as shared language, specialist vocabularies, catch phrases, stories about great successes and failures, jokes, and so on – and the tacit dimension that enables practitioners to integrate the relevant information signals to accomplish the task in hand. In close-knit communities of practice, the tacit dimension can become highly aligned as practitioners come to share a similar way of interpreting and responding to information signals. Under such circumstances, emotional factors might be far more important than rational argument. Metaphors such as ‘team spirit’ reflect the sense of people thinking and acting as if they were in each other's minds. Although the potential advantages of ‘automatic management’ (for example, when the organisation's team does things without waiting to be asked) might be impressive, the embedded nature of highly aligned expectations about ‘the way that things are done around here’ can mean that such practices are difficult to change or cause the team to become the prisoner of ‘group think’.

Within the broad sweep of global progress towards the industrial era, Western theorising about managerial processes associated with its pioneering development of large organisations – governmental, military, business, and so on – tended to overlook the social dimension of community relationships in favour of an emphasis on the rational management of individuals. Many such attempts assumed that there is – or there must be – ‘one best way’ to organise: a universally applicable solution to the challenge of managing the modern organisation (Drucker, 2001, pp. 9–16). Frederick Winslow Taylor's (1998) Scientific Management (first published in 1911) could be reinterpreted as an early attempt to manage knowledge, while the German sociologist, Max Weber (1864–1920) argued that rational principles of bureaucracy offered compelling advantages (see Clegg et al., 2005). However, the apparent globalisation of capitalism and bureaucratic organisational forms does not necessarily mean that adopters have reproduced Western-style rules of practice: the power that is mediated by aligned tacit knowing within Japanese ba and Chinese guanxi is not necessarily diminished if their respective members eat at McDonald's.

Today, it is increasingly difficult to find parts of the world that have not been touched by globalisation. You can buy a Big Mac in Moscow, rent a Blockbuster video in Beijing and eat Kentucky Fried Chicken within sight of Egypt's Sphinx. Twenty-four-hour-a-day news can make distant places appear more familiar and some observers might equate this with Marshall McLuhan's (1964) vision of a ‘global village’ in which radio and television extend an individual's central nervous system towards a ‘global embrace’. Thus, McLuhan argued that these media made it possible to connect with events on the other side of the world more easily than across the local community or village. However, seeing another culture on a television screen is no guarantee of understanding it. Making sense of other peoples’ thoughts and actions takes imagination and interpretive understanding – which involves grasping intended meaning in their terms rather than in your terms and being able to translate between the two. For example, the USA's ‘war on terror’ reflects the global reach of armed conflict: wars are no longer confined to a specific geographical location. The USA and its allies can bomb anywhere on the planet, while their adversaries can cause carnage through lower tech, but no less fearsome, weapons. While ceaseless detail about the latest ‘victories’ and ‘advances’ in this war criss-cross the world through television, the internet, radio, print and other media, the interpretation of what is a ‘victory’ or a ‘defeat’ is shaped by one's mental frame of reference, what one watches, where one watches it and with whom. McLuhan thought that the medium was the message – but he missed a vital point: when transmitted through exactly the same images, events that can cause sorrow and devastation in one cultural context may be an occasion for rejoicing in another.

The discontinuity between outsider and insider perspectives can act as a barrier that frustrates communication or reinforces prejudices. Conversely, working to build mutual understanding across the divide can generate valuable opportunities for juxtaposing contrasting perspectives and developing new insights: each side might learn from the other. Roland Robertson and other leading commentators have referred to the interaction of the ‘global’ and the ‘local’ as ‘glocalisation’ – the simultaneous presence of both universalising and particularising tendencies (Robertson, 1997). Thus, the decision by McDonald's to use the popular French cartoon character, Asterix the Gaul, to promote its operations in France, is an example of glocalisation in which the global influence adjusts to local requirements. Eating a Big Mac in a Paris McDonald's could make you feel as if you are anywhere in the world – and, in countries such as France, that is what McDonald's might want to redefine through glocalisation. The popular image of French gourmet food, carefully and creatively crafted by accomplished chefs, is at odds with McDonald's emphasis on standardisation. Moreover, a distinctively French variation on fast food is available in the form of freshly baked French bread that reflects the know-how generated locally by small independent bakeries – as we will see later.

Along with global influences reaching into local practices, glocalisation can also centre on local activities reaching towards global opportunities – as in the production of local handicrafts and souvenirs. However, discovering a ‘Made in China’ label on your souvenir model of the Eiffel Tower might be a salutary reminder that global interconnectedness is often a complex affair. For the American sociologist George Ritzer (2004, p. 163), glocalisation generates unique outcomes in different geographical areas and gets to the heart of what many – perhaps most – contemporary globalisation theorists think about the nature of transnational processes. Glocalisation involves the interpenetration of local practices and global contexts: it represents the space in which expectations about ‘the way that things should be done around here’ interact with influences from elsewhere – whether in the form of information, ideas, music, the movement of people, capital, military interventions or other factors that cause local people to do things in a different way. The central theme of this course concerns the complex interrelationship between ‘doing things’ – practices – in the here-and-now and the myriad connections and influences that situate those practices within the wider world.

Section 2 explores some dimensions of globalisation: including the diffusion of standard products in a global market, ‘McDonaldisation’, glocalisation and the concentration of local expertise in geographical clusters. In Section 3, we consider processes that connect people together. Along with participating in different nested and overlapping communities of practice, people identify with ‘imagined communities’ (Anderson, 1991), such as nations, which comprise vast numbers of people whom they could never hope to meet. In this respect, globalisation involves the intermingling of previously separate contexts and redefines or transcends traditional boundaries. From the point of view of managing knowledge, essential issues arise with regard to the role of tacit knowing, in any given context, and the appropriateness of rational decision-making models – reviewed in Section 4 – based on universally applicable principles. Section 5.2 uses a case study of France's small, independent bakeries to illustrate alternatives to the ‘one best way’ approach.

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