Friday, February 10, 2006

What the Hell is Knowledge Transfer?

"John, your head of department said I should talk to you about knowledge transfer in the law school. When would you be available to meet?", the nice fellow from the university research office asked.

"I don't know what knowledge transfer is, but don't I do it already. I research, I write it up and I publish it. Bingo, knowledge transferred to the public domain." I replied.

I next received a copy of the university's research and knowledge transfer policy. Now this I had already seen and considered it a pretty anodyne piece of writing which mainly seemed to let those not doing research off the hook. What's more even though it rambled on about knowledge transfer, it left me none the wiser. I have mentioned before that our research record in the law school is good and this extra bit of the research policy appeared as though it might be a distraction from doing what we are good at.

OK, I come clean. I sound cynical, don't I. University managements get bees in their bonnets and every so often thing certain things are good things to do. A recent example was to have faculty record 5 minute lecturettes on various topics. To be filmed the mark had to stand very still and look straight into camera and talk continuously. These filmettes were loaded on the university intranet to be played whenever the student wanted. There was a slight problem: no student wanted to watch these stiff mannequins rambling on. It was also virtually impossible to update them without filming the entire thing over. Yet the management thought this was going to bring in the students and sank a lot of money into the project which has now died a graceful and forgotten death.

I just know they are going to hear about podcasts next and the decrees will flutter down...

Back to knowledge transfer. Is everyone paying attention? I'm going to hold a test soon to "formatively assess your skills" (another thing they're keen on[?]). Today, the fellow from the research office and I met. After he admired the carpets in my office--I've no room at home, so had to put them somewhere--he got down to business.

"Tell me, A, what is knowledge transfer?" I asked. The ensuing conversation lasted just over an hour. I'll fill in the details as best I can in a minute, but when we had finished I went down the corridor to see a colleague.

She asked me, "Well, what is knowledge transfer?"

I had one of those awful moments when I realised I had been deeply immersed in a conversation but I was unable to recall anything that was actually said. My mind was blank. I profoundly understood the concept of "knowledge non-transfer". None had been transmitted nor received.

But back to the conversation with A. He first started by telling me that the government was keen on knowledge transfer and that it was different from research and teaching. Was this the third way in education, I wondered, the true holy grail? Since the government wanted it, the universities must want it too and they were keen to push it. Indeed, our senior management was all for knowledge transfer, but I don't recall any of them actually saying what it was, only that it was a good thing and we must embrace it.

If you've read my previous blog, you'll know that embracing things incurs risks. Still, I said, we in the law school are not risk averse and we do embrace it. By this stage the conversation had taken on rhythmic flow of easy interchange between us. Back and forth we went throwing ideas into the air, catching some, missing others. A threw a high one.

"You have a capital punishment studies centre!", he exclaimed, "That's knowledge transfer." This was close to match point. "But," I rejoined, "when P started the centre the senior management were asking him why was proposing a centre that promoted the death penalty." It seems they got the wrong end of the stick; P was actually against it. And he got an OBE for it recently too.

So, perhaps, I entertained, law is not the safest area for knowledge transfer because people might get the wrong idea about what it is we're transferring. A pooh-poohed my objection. "SMEs would love to know about law," he advocated. I pretended to know what SMEs were so I would not upset him more than I had. The topic of SMEs and their addiction, so it seemed (they were insatiable), took us forward for at least another 15 to 20 minutes--A was into scenario setting with SMEs at one point--with A becoming more animated. He was excited; he was definitely embracing the concept. I, however, was still searching for it.

Since research was different from knowledge transfer, I proposed, maybe it's like academic versus vocational studies. If you're not quite good enough for full-blown, pukka research, a bit of quick knowledge transfer on the side will see you through. A felt that didn't capture the full essence of knowledge transfer. It was still eluding me. He further ventured that it would be one of the pillars on which the law school would stand. "There could be as many as five pillars", he said. I think research was on another, but I got lost among them after that hoping the law school wouldn't fall down if I couldn't remember what the pillars were supporting.

Sadly, our conversation drew to its natural conclusion. I promised to report our conversation to the law school research committee when it met soon. "I'm sure they will be eager to hear about knowledge transfer." I said. "And I promise I will let you know what they think." A was pleased with that and we parted with a better understanding of our own positions, perhaps not each other's. We mutually assured each other we would stay in touch, but I was able to give him several names of colleagues who would dearly love to discuss knowledge transfer with him, and who would be planning their revenge against me before long.

As A left my office, I ruminated.

Now it's post-rumination and it's time for that test I promised.

  1. In no more than two sentences express the core meaning of knowledge transfer with no more than three examples.
  2. You are the senior manager of an university and your task is, without sinking into deplorable silo mentality, to exhort the troops to take to the barricades of knowledge transfer in no less than 20 PowerPoint slides without the use of verbs.
  3. You are an exhortee and you have been ordered to come up with a fantastic idea, an opportunity for knowledge transfer in your field of autopoietic medieval metaphysics. You have one week, or else.
And if you find out anything, would you mind letting me know.....

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