Communication Currents

Commanding Minds

June 1, 2014
Organizational Communication

Imagine you're a manager of creative workers. You walk the halls and see one of the employees staring out the window. Is she daydreaming? Thinking about sports? Worrying about her dog? Or working on the latest design? What do you do? How do you manage her? How do you talk to her? How do you learn what's on her mind?

This is a quintessential problem of the knowledge economy.

My recent article in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies explored one response to the problem of managing the knowledge worker: the techniques of knowledge management. Specifically, I traced the rise of two chief-level executives in corporations: the Chief Learning Officer (CLO) and the Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO). I engaged in an extensive study of the business, popular, and academic writings that essentially describe these jobs and make them imaginable within corporate bureaucracies. These two positions are symbolic of larger ideas about knowledge, value production, and management appearing in corporations.

What I found is that these positions are tied to a theory of power within contemporary corporations. The best term I could find for this theory is noopower. This term comes from the Greek word nous, which means "mind." This term gets at what's happening with knowledge management: management of thoughts, perceptions, and attention. Whereas older forms of management might have been directed at the body—think of linking a person to a drill press or a rivet gun—knowledge management delves into employees' minds. This is important; the mind is a key site of struggle in the knowledge economy.

I share the concerns of many who critically consider the ways in which knowledge workers are managed. Although knowledge work is lauded as a far more creative and fulfilling type of work than, say, agricultural or industrial work, it's not all roses. Knowledge management—as personified in positions such as the CLO or CKO—sees to that. Returning to my opening example, a way to manage that knowledge worker is to do everything in your power to ensure that she's thinking about what you want.

The material that describes the CKO and CLO positions explains how this could be done. After studying this literature, I found three main threads of power over thoughts described:

  1. Firing people with "outdated" knowledge.
  2. Disciplining people (monitoring and training them).
  3. Finding a way to use machines or non-employees to do the thinking.

The first thread is not talked about much in the CKO and CLO literatures, probably because it is crude. However, the literatures do recommend that firms shed "useless" knowledge. Since they define "knowledge" as something employees hold "between their ears," this is a cryptic way of saying "fire those in your firm who do not have valuable knowledge" or "fire those who aren't thinking correctly." Of course, the definition of "valuable" or "correct" is entirely the purview of management.

The second thread is the most common. It involves the constant surveillance and training of employees to ensure that their thoughts are always bent towards producing value for the firm. This is the realm of training videos, annual assessments, incentives (bonuses, raises, and promotions), and punishments (marginalization, removing the possibility of advancement). In other words, this is the area many of us are quite familiar with, because many of us work for firms that do these things.

The final thread is more aspirational, but it is very strong in the literature. Rather than relying on an employee to do the thinking for the firm, why not get such thinking from other sources? One such source is technological. If an employee's knowledge can be abstracted and embedded in machines (expert systems, artificial intelligence) or even more prosaic communication technologies (best practices, manuals, and documentation), then anyone in the firm can use that knowledge. The knowledge worker becomes far less valuable.

But beyond the abstraction of knowledge into technical systems, firms also are seeking to monitor and capture the thoughts of non-employees. Think of Dell's IdeaStorm site, which allows Dell customers to suggest new products and features. All suggestions become the property of Dell, with customers receiving little beyond the satisfaction of voicing their preferences. This sort of practice isn't limited to crowdsourcing. Firms also monitor the activities of their suppliers, seeking ways to capture ideas from those external sources.

If these efforts are successful, then the knowledge worker is no longer required. This is the dream of knowledge management: the dissolution of the very worker it purports to manage. New chief-level positions such as the CKO and CLO are imagined to be capable of moving a firm from being non-knowledge-centric to knowledge-centric, guiding it to the goal of leaving knowledge workers behind.

Beyond firms, I think knowledge management and noopower are important areas to critically consider because they appear in other places. For example, I came to this by doing critical work on social media. Although it might not seem obvious, there are many affinities between social media and knowledge work in firms: sites like Facebook, Google, and Twitter are seeking to shape our interactions—indeed, our very thoughts—as we use them. Like firms, these sites are seeking to bend our thoughts towards consumption above all else. For discussions of this, I suggest my magazine article on the history of Facebook's "like" button or my academic article on noopower in social media.

I also am concerned that the techniques listed here are being increasingly turned on an institution ill-equipped to deal with them: the university. While universities are intended to be enclaves of "the life of the mind," many of the managerial techniques revealed in the CKO and CLO literatures are being imported into the contemporary university.

About the author (s)

Robert W. Gehl

University of Utah

Assistant Professor