Knowledge Management or Management of Knowledge? Why People Interested in Knowledge Management Need to Consider Foucault and the Construct of Power

By Gordon, Ray; Grant, David | Tamara : Journal of Critical Postmodern Organization Science, January 1, 2005 | Go to article overview
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Knowledge Management or Management of Knowledge? Why People Interested in Knowledge Management Need to Consider Foucault and the Construct of Power


Gordon, Ray, Grant, David, Tamara : Journal of Critical Postmodern Organization Science


ABSTRACT

In this article we argue that, to date, the knowledge management literature has insufficiently addressed the construct of power. The power literature is reviewed using three categories: power-as-entity, power-as-strategy and power-is-knowledge. We find that much of the knowledge management literature, while not directly addressing power, aspires to the dictum "knowledge is power", which corresponds to the power-as-entity approach. Drawing on the work of Foucault we go on to show that, while the power-as-entity approach is important, it is not sufficient. Foucault's work demonstrates how our understanding of knowledge management can be enriched by adopting a power-as-strategy approach. Further, the work of post-Foucauldian power theorists, especially Flyvbjerg (1998), shows that while knowledge is power, "power is also knowledge"- and thus the nature and context of power shapes organizational knowledge. We argue that Foucault's inseparability of knowledge and power provides a foundation from which it can be shown that the inversion of the "knowledge is power" dictum to "power is knowledge" has significant implications for the theory and practice of knowledge management.

INTRODUCTION

In light of the attention that knowledge management is currently receiving in academic and practitioner arenas, it is time to take stock of where the literature seems to be headed. Early sections of this paper examine the knowledge management literature and establish its emergent boundaries using a methodological approach advocated by Barley, Meyer and Gash (1988). Such an approach provides the foundations for building a Foucauldian archaeology of knowledge management discourse. It shows that, to date, the literature remains dominated by technical disciplines, notably information technology. Moreover, where organizational theorists have shown an interest in knowledge management they have tended to insufficiently address its relationship with the construct of power.

Later sections of the paper are used to illustrate why, conceptually, it is important for those theorists and practitioners interested in knowledge management to pay more attention to the issue of power. The power literature is examined using the three broad categories of "power-as-entity", "power-as-strategy" and "power-is-knowledge". We apply genealogical analysis as advocated by Foucault to these three categories in order to illustrate how the juxtaposition of discourse and practice offers significant insights into theory and practice of knowledge management. Further we draw upon the work of contemporary power theorists, notably Flyvbjerg (1998) and Huagaard (1997; 2000) to contrast the conceptual themes that underpin each of these categories.

We conclude that if as Foucault's powerknowledge nexus indicates, power and knowledge are inseparable, then the limited coverage of power within the knowledge management literature renders much of this literature problematic. Accordingly, we assert that the theory and practice of knowledge management can be enriched by research that recognizes how the struggle for power within an organization may influence the design, implementation and ongoing management of a knowledge management system while at the same time the knowledge management system will influence the struggle for power.

THE KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT LITERATURE: ESTABLISHING THE BOUNDARIES

Some theorists have already suggested that the management of knowledge is not necessarily anything new. Pemberton (1998) points out that records have been kept for thousands of years before the emergence of philosophy and its focus on knowledge. In order to demonstrate his point, he goes back to the preSocratic times of the sixth and fifth centuries BC and discusses thinkers such as Anaximander, Pythagoras, Anaxagoras and Thales. More recently, the nature and role of knowledge in organizations and society has attracted the attention of a number of key theorists including, for example, Foucault (1966) (discussed later in more detail), Durkheim (1893), Weber (1914), Mannheim (1975).

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