Comparing "traditional knowledge" (as in indigenous communities) to "traditional science" (as in scientific method) offers a useful metaphor—and perhaps a better model—for the problem of constructing KM solutions, which are typically approached as an extension of "scientific management" even though organizational interventions respond better to anthropological approaches rather than technological ones.
Knowledge in the Wild
The International Council for Science defines traditional knowledge as the accumulated learning, skills, and practices maintained by communities with long experience in their environments. That knowledge informs day-to-day decisions and long-term worldviews on practical and fundamental aspects of a group's practices.
"Traditional knowledge" suggests (wrongly) that this knowledge is rooted in the past without necessarily renewing itself, which it does. "Indigenous knowledge" is a better term, emphasizing the situation of knowledge: its inextricable link to place and context. This situated knowledge is almost always framed by social responsibility and long-term sustainability. Nevertheless, it tends to sound like "common sense" (which it is, literally) about practical advice and everyday reality, albeit based on a long view stretching back generations, centuries or longer. It also balances collective and individual stewardship for the knowledge that is vital if the group is to survive and thrive.
The usefulness of situated knowledge has long been recognized in ethnobotany, but now indigenous knowledge is an increasingly popular idea in social and environmental sciences related to development, since there is growing recognition that development "sciences" are failing to relieve human suffering and environmental degradation in the ways their models predicted.
Incorporating indigenous knowledge into development efforts leverages a number of its strengths. It demonstrates respect for those involved by focusing on their needs, resources, responsibilities and experience; it facilitates local adaptation of technologies and techniques instead of forcing untailored adoption; it supplements—rather than supplants—local theory and practice; and it improves the collective awareness and sense-making necessary to make adjustments as a project proceeds.
"The relative failure of externally introduced development initiatives has impelled a shift toward a participatory and decentralized motif in development," writes Arun Agrawal in "Dismantling the Divide Between Indigenous and Scientific Knowledge."
Replace "development" with "management" and his shift sounds suspiciously similar to the changes occurring in most forms of modern organizations, including peacekeeping.
Recognizing the value of indigenous knowledge has led to calls and actions to systematically collect as much of it as possible. That is, to deploy researchers into the field to document local traditional knowledge, catalogue it and archive it in international repositories for the purposes of both preserving this knowledge from loss and helping it to be transferred from one location to another.
The Dangers of Documentation
However, Agrawal warns that "neo-indigenistas" (his term for those who would save indigenous knowledge by removing it from the wild) are being hypocritical when they advocate for gathering it into civilized central repositories. Disconnecting knowledge from its source, in terms of people and places, will remove from that knowledge the very context which infuses it with life. Because indigenous knowledge is continuously generated and renewed in the living practices of people, archiving in isolation from practice removes its ongoing relevance. (One only has to look at the shrinking half-life of most modern technological knowledge to see the parallel.)
And worst of all, Agrawal argues, what he calls ex situ conservation of knowledge replaces the validation of ongoing practice with "scientific" methods and measurements. Simply allowing outside researchers to decide what knowledge to document, how it should be documented and how it will be categorized and stored, subjects that knowledge to the wrong evaluations.
"Thus, for all the admiration and respect accorded the indigenous systems, they must first pass a scientific criterion of validity before being recognized as usable knowledge," he complains. Moreover, once it has been selected and collected, access to the knowledge privileges "the scientific investigator, the scientific community, science, and bureaucratic procedures" at the expense of those who may best derive practical benefit from using that knowledge.
"It remains mired in the rhetoric of documentation and storage, management and dissemination, centralization and bureaucratization; it ultimately authorizes science and method, dooming itself to a perpetual state of remaining, simply, a desire." In the end, he predicts, "ex situ preservation of indigenous knowledges is likely to fail, succeeding only in creating a mausoleum for knowledge."
Is All Knowledge Indigenous?
What Agrawal describes as the problem with "ex-situ conservation" is exactly the same danger faced by any organization looking to collect and disseminate best practices. It's myopic to think indigenous knowledge exists only in "primitive" communities. Fire stations, assembly lines, and executive suites all accrete intuitions, superstitions and stories that go uncatalogued by scientific research. Any group of workers in the field or office acquire rituals, beliefs, traditions that embody lessons learned and are justified as "the way we do things around here" in contrast to the sterile, mechanical and irrelevant view of practice as wholly predictable and manageable.
This is where the lesson gets really interesting for managing organizational knowledge and supporting knowledge work, based on socially or technologically engineered solutions. If the failure of scientifically derived and centrally planned "grand theories of development" stimulated this reassessment, why shouldn't something similar follow from the failure of equally grand theories of organizational policy, management and practice?
Keeping knowledge situated in the communities and localities is best represented by keeping it connected to a person.