In their influential book Metaphors We Live By (2003), the cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that metaphors are not just ways of communicating but that they shape the way we think about the world as well as how we act. In this understanding, metaphors are not just poetic devices or characteristics of colourful language but are pervasive in everyday life and as important to thought and action as to language.
They write: “The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities. If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.” (p.4). As an initial example they refer to the conceptual metaphor “argument is war”, pointing out that is picked up in a wide variety of related expressions: She attacked the weak point in my argument, I shot down all his arguments, Your claims are indefensible, and so on.
In relation to knowledge mobilisation, Huw Davies and colleagues (2008) picked up on the implications of the terms “knowledge transfer” and “knowledge translation”. They suggest that “the metaphor invoked by these terms is, at best, one of gathering and integrating evidence from research, condensing this into convergent knowledge, and neatly packaging this knowledge for transfer elsewhere. More often, it simply implies the dissemination of relatively undigested findings from single studies. In other words, knowledge parcels for grateful recipients. Such a view belies the inherent and, we would argue, largely insurmountable challenges of doing so for any but the most simple and incontrovertible of findings. Moreover, if the challenges of delivering convergent knowledge are large, the subtlety and complexity of research use in context further militate against simple models of ‘translate and transfer’” (Davies et al. 2008: 189) We might think about the implications of some of the other metaphors used for this and related activities: knowledge utilisation, knowledge mobilisation, knowledge management, technology transfer, and so on. Each of these terms implies something about what the activity involves, and is limited to, and could be critiqued in a similar way: we’re simply making knowledge mobile (because we don’t want stationary knowledge?) or using it (which raises questions who is using it and to what end)?
If Lakoff and Johnson are correct then we should pay attention to what each of these metaphors implies. That each is limited is perhaps unavoidable and make partly explain why the KM field is split by different terminologies rather than united by an agreed-upon one. But we should go further and examine in more detail the consequences of these metaphors. If it is the case that they are not mere linguistic ornamentation but are orienting concepts that shape the way we think and act then we need to consider whether they are shaping our thought and actions in the most appropriate and productive ways.
A long chapter in the Sage Handbook of Organisation Studies is devoted to metaphors of organisational communication. It opens with a commentary on the growth in studies of organisational communication, a growth which has been accompanied by a shift from linear transmission within organisations to “the way that social interaction, discursive processes and symbolic meanings constitute organizations” (Putnam and Boys 2006: 541). To date there has been no similar investigation of and reflection upon the metaphors of KM and their consequences. We might ask a number of questions: what are the key metaphors of KM? How are they employed? How do they influence the expressions we use when talking about KM (in line with the expressions about argument mentioned above? How have they changed over the time, and what underlying changes in our practice and understanding do these changes reflect? And, most importantly, how do these metaphors constitute the things we do when we do KM?
A maturing science needs a degree of awareness and reflection of itself, of what it is and what it is not. KM would benefit from a greater sense of itself and understanding the metaphors we use in doing this work would be one way to approach this.
Davies H, Nutley S, Walter I. 2008. Why ‘knowledge transfer’ is misconceived for applied social research. Journal of Health Services Research & Policy. 15:188-190.
Lakoff G, Johnson M. 2003. Metaphors We Live By. (New ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Putnam L, Boys S. 2006. Revisiting metaphors of organizational communication. in Clegg SR, Hardy C, Lawrence TB, Nord WR. The SAGE Handbook of Organisation Studies. London: Sage Publications. pp.541-577)