Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Best present I could have wished for: a compliment

It has been a rough month. First, our NWO proposal got rejected, despite being rated 'good/excellent'. Annoying. Second, the article we'd sent in for a special issue to the journal 'Organization' got rejected. Okay, it had been a last minute thing, but still, it was disappointing not to have been granted the opportunity to develop it further. And then third, the article we had already been working on for a year, got rejected by Organization Studies, after waiting for over 6 months ago for the reviews. Not just annoying, not just disappointing, but incredibly frustrating and demotivating. When I read the letter this Sunday, I couldn't even think of a way to tweet how I felt about this, but it would have probably been something about a boxing match, three rounds, going down each time, you know... that kind of thing!
And then, out of the blue, a wonderful person in Mwanza, Tanzania sat down at his computer, and took the effort to spontaneously write me this email:

From: ...@snvworld.org]
Sent: dinsdag 7 december 2010 7:23
To: Ferguson, J.E. (Julie)
Subject: KM in development practice

Dear Julie and colleagues,

I have just been reading your article on Knowledge Management in Practice, in World Development of December this year and wanted to share my appreciation.

I am working for SNV, the Dutch development organisation, in Mwanza (Tanzania) and recognize many of the points and challenges you are raising. While I can not judge your theoretical contribution, I certainly value the article as an important contribution to development practice. You may not have covered completely new ground, but the way you have constructed your arguments and drawn from practice I found very appropriate and relevant. The practices you rightly criticize are very prevalent, and your article is a healthy stimulation for critical reflection. I have just one small remark: I wish that the ‘best practice’ movement was as dead as you describe it to be (“Indeed, after the initial hype, such approaches fizzled out”, p. 1802). ‘On the ground’ it is alive and kicking, I can assure you.

I found in your approach much of what I recognize from a book by David Ellerman on ‘Helping People Help Themselves’. He is possibly even more critical then you are, when he mentions as one of the pitfalls of what you call the ‘objectivist perspective’ that it not just ‘ignores or disregards’ knowledge, but he is actually talking about distortionary knowledge processes, supplying biased information and one-sided arguments. And of the engineering approach he writes that it is not just managerial or instrumental, but that it does not share knowledge but ‘borrowed opinions’ and thus actually ‘undercuts learning’! (p. 18)
His suggestion for ‘decentralised social learning’ (p. 148) is very close to your proposed situated mutual learning. Putting such learning in practice, considering the power assymetries inherent in development practices, is difficult to achieve and can in my experience only be aimed for. Your article is a timely reminder and challenge to keep that on the agenda.

Many thanks,.


The fact that the research that we work so hard on actually reaches the people who need it, and also resonates with their reality, is so incredibly encouraging, it almost makes up for the enormous frustration I have been feeling over the past few days. Moreover, this type of feedback provides the perfect motivation to continue on this painstaking journey, ploughing away for a year or more on each article, before even reaching the morass of reviewers, re-writes or rejections!

So, next time you feel the urge to give someone a compliment, but feel embarrassed or inhibited to do so: do it anyway. Because - research has shown it, and I can now also wholeheartedly support this - such a small gesture can make a monster difference to the recipient.