How po-mo gets knowledge out of slo-mo

How po-mo gets knowledge out of slo-mo

Knowledge managers of tomorrow have some lessons to learn about the worthiness of old modes of thought.

By Paul Montgomery

We are living in the age of post-modernism. Modernism, whose reign stretched from the middle of the 19th century through to the second world war, was an escape from realism in favour of impressionism, abstract art and freedom of expression from the constraints of nature, rejecting boundaries between high and low forms of art, and rejecting rigid genre distinctions. Postmodernism continued this trend, but in a more positive manner: while modernist artists bemoaned the loss of innocence, postmodernist artists celebrate it.

Postmodernism is not just an artistic trend; it is a social phenomenon that reaches into all facets of society. Amongst many other things, postmodernism is concerned with questions of the organisation of knowledge. In modern societies, knowledge was equated with science, and was contrasted to narrative - where narrative meant religious tracts or national constitutions, setting out a goal towards which a society worked, such as salvation or democratic ideals. Science was good knowledge, and narrative was bad, primitive and irrational. Knowledge, however, was good for its own sake; one gained knowledge, via education, in order to be knowledgeable in general, to become an educated person. In a postmodern society, however, knowledge becomes functional - you learn things, not to know them, but to use that knowledge.

Educational policy today puts emphasis on skills and training, rather than on a vague humanist ideal of education in general. High school leavers who flip through our feature and listing on education for records/information/knowledge managers in this issue will no doubt be asked the usual question by their parents: “What will you do with your degree?” The trend towards a more vocational level of training - specific to the field you are working in, rather than merely taking an English course and leaving yourself open to all possibilities - is a signature effect of postmodernism.

Those children educated after the war were taught to question everything, especially social institutions. This attitude - that there is no one single Truth, merely differing perspectives - is anathema to what might be called the traditional sense of knowledge management.

Modernity is fundamentally about order: about rationality and rationalisation, creating order out of chaos. The assumption is that creating more rationality is conducive to creating more order, and that the more ordered a society is, the better it will function. One can see obvious parallels with the fundamental tents of records management.

Because modernity is about the pursuit of ever-increasing levels of order, modern societies constantly are on guard against anything and everything labelled as “disorder”, which might disrupt order. Thus modern societies rely on continually establishing a binary opposition between order and disorder, so that they can assert the superiority of order. But to do this, they have to have things that represent disorder/modern societies thus continually have to create/construct disorder. In Western culture, this disorder becomes “the other” - defined in relation to other binary oppositions. Postmodernist thinkers would criticise the current war on terror in this light, although not necessarily in an entirely pejorative sense.

In postmodern societies, anything that cannot be translated into a form recognisable and storable by a computer - i.e. anything that’s not able to be digitised - will cease to be knowledge. In this paradigm, the opposite of “knowledge” is not “ignorance,” as it is the modern/humanist paradigm, but rather “noise.” Anything that doesn’t qualify as a kind of knowledge is “noise,” is something that is not recognisable as anything within this system.


One of the catchphrases of postmodernism is “everything than can be said, has been said”. The breaking down of the myth of originality has broken artists out of the conceit that what they are doing is of inherent worth merely because they are doing it for the first time, because numerous other artists will have done it before them. This is an issue that knowledge managers have to deal with every day, but in a different sense. Someone, somewhere in your organisation has probably thought up the answer to your problem at some time in the past. The trick is, did they record this knowledge for future use, and can it be found in the organisation’s knowledge base?

The answer to one or both of these questions is often in the negative, which points to a basic flaw of postmodernist theory when applied to real life situations: it focuses on reaction, rather than basic actions.

Postmodernist thought is useful, but only if it is buttressed by the knowledge of all that has gone before it. Knowledge managers can only apply this de-constructivist thought if there has been something constructed beforehand for them to examine.One hope’s that the educational courses at tertiary institutions listed in this edition can produce knowledge managers of tomorrow who can distinguish between the need for construction and the need for destruction.

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