Monday, 14 November 2011

Knowledge Management in UK eGovernment Practices (by Ana Guedes Rosa)

My name is Ana and I’m from Portugal. Last year, I completed an MSc in Information Management in Sheffield University’s iSchool, and during my dissertation project I discovered some gaps regarding the knowledge and nature of Knowledge Management (KM) practices in eGovernment projects.

I recently began PhD research aimed at identifying and conceptualizing knowledge sharing efforts across organisational boundaries (mostly departmental), in the management processes necessary to develop innovative eGovernment applications at a local level.  By the end, I hope to be able to develop case studies, which identify good practice.  These can hopefully provide an interpretation of knowledge phenomena that can help to support future eGovernment projects in UK councils. (I don’t have a matured research question yet! But good things come with time, right?)

The study will take place in British municipalities that are in the initial stages of developing benchmark eGovernment applications (this being the common ground for my case study approach). The choice of UK municipalities was simple! The UK is a pioneering country in local level eGovernment, due to the 2005 pledge (ODPM, 2003). However, in a recent eGovernment benchmark exercise from the European Commission (Capgemini, 2009), the country was placed only 7th in terms of the availability and sophistication of its electronic services, and user take-up did not reach the 50% mark.

The literature argues that results are due to organisational challenges, which in turn derive from the socially constructed nature of Public Administration (PA) knowledge and its encompassing conflicts. These include, amongst others, conflicts between services’ priorities and cultures (these set PA apart from the Volunteer Sector, as was discussed in the session). There are some case studies already published that consider KM in the PA, but they reflect mostly on governance and technical issues.

Having recognised this opportunity for relevant empirical research I am now seeking to collaborate with a varied sample of municipalities, and to engage on qualitative data collection by using: structured observation, official documentary material and, at a later stage, interviews. Because of the challenges involved in working with municipalities, which need to account for issues such as time, hierarchical decision-making, public interest and privacy protection, I will keep in mind some tips suggested during the meeting. Then, after the data analysis stage, I will come again and talk a bit more.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Research Ethics (by Mark Hall)

Research ethics is a topic that is like a midnight curry. You are very likely to see it again. The University and the individual departments have forms and procedures in place to ensure that at least there is a paper trail of what (un)ethical research was planned and then performed. What falls by the way-side are the gray areas where the research might be formally ethical, but where in the practical execution the ethicality becomes unclear. An example: financially rewarding participants for taking part in an experiment is a long-established technique and has actually been shown to produce more representative results. With the advent of work-sourcing sites such as Amazon Mechanical Turk, you can now place money in a pot with them, source large numbers of participants and the financial reward processing is handled by Amazon. So far, so good, the ethics committee will be happy. However, the average amount of money paid to participants is usually significantly below the minimum wage. Is that still ethical?

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Electrocution and PhD supervision

In last month's discussion, Nigel Ford asked what the role of the PhD supervisor is.  The answer (as is usually the case) was "It depends".   It depends on the student, the subject and the project.  Most of the group's responses are summed up in the abstract that Sheila posted on this blog last month (Thanks Sheila!).  Arguably, one of the roles of a PhD student is, under the guidance of her/his supervisor, to become an expert.  That, however, raises the question of what an expert is.

As might be expected given its title, Carolyn Marvin's 1988 book "When Old Technologies Were New" considers the impact of, and response to, some of the technologies introduced during the Victorian era.  She draws on several articles from newspapers and magazines of the period.  One of her excerpts (from London Illustrated News, 10/07/1897) has a bearing on our July discussion on the invention of the fact.  The author of the article, which is about the "unskeptical presentation of the 'facts' of science", notes that "No work of information has given me the pleasure I derive from these weekly additions to knowledge.  Sometimes they surprise as well as delight me, for example: 'Kissing originated in England.'"

The book's first chapter is called "Inventing the Expert". Just as is the case with facts, it is surprising at first to think that experts were invented.  Arguably, expertise is something that evolved as cultures developed from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural ones.  However, someone with expertise is not necessarily an expert.

Until the 19th century, well-educated people could understand the principals of most available technologies, and could assess for themselves the competence of a specialist in that technology.  Using a passage from Electrical Review of 22/10/1887, Marvin illustrates how things began to go horribly wrong:  "Then there is the youth who has read as much as he could understand of an elementary textbook...This youth is the genius of the family...He must be an electrical engineer.  Taking advantage of the sudden demand for men with electrical knowledge, he manages to get a situation, being ready with his set phrases, in which volts, ohms and amperes are plentifully besprinkled.  We next find him in charge of a dynamo, and shortly after read the account of his death caused by shunting some of the current into his own body."

Professionals bodies had, for centuries, played a part in assessing the expertise of novices; but often this was to ensure that the profession retained its secrets.  As technologies became harder to grasp, secrecy for its own sake became less necessary.  Instead, the assessment (in the form of a professional qualification) helped to assure employers who did not understand the technology, that the possessor of the qualification was considered competent by people who did understand the technology.  In other words, experts became people whose pronouncements replaced the need for understanding.