The Knowledge Economy
In the past decade, as Information Technology and Communications (ITC) have penetrated into every corner of the globe, some societies (mainly western) have adopted the technologies in such a comprehensive way that they have re-shaped their economies and their architecture for knowledge management. The creation of world-wide networks like Internet, the ubiquitous presence of desktop computers in most western societies, falling prices of telecommunications globally with progress in satellite technology, and advances in materials science and electronic engineering have created new products and services, new businesses and new opportunities unknown just ten years ago. A recent World Bank report (1997) suggests that as much as seventy percent of the global economy is now extra-national, crossing (even disregarding) national boundaries at will. Globally, knowledge is increasingly recognized as a key resource which contributes to economic development. Unlike more traditionally recognized inputs to economic growth such as labor and capital, knowledge once created can be widely diffused and used on a non-exclusive basis throughout society if proper incentives and capabilities exist, among individuals as well as institutions. As countries recognize the importance of proper incentives and capabilities to create, diffuse and use knowledge, many have begun to craft strategies which can enhance the contribution of knowledge to economic efficiency, social welfare and sustainable growth.
This is called by some the knowledge revolution, because many of the new opportunities are in industries and institutions dependent upon scientific and technical knowledge and instant knowledge of world markets. They are reliant upon advanced organizational theory and financial systems and on timely acquisition and use of information. They have forced a re-structuring of established industries and led to the creation of scores of new types of enterprises which are knowledge-based (National Research Council and World Bank, 1995). Knowledge, like currency, it is considered, must be circulated to be of any use. Only through use will its value be realised. Knowledge in both its explicit and tacit forms is learned through an interactive process, sustained through shared social networks and connected organizations. Building a networked learning society requires some degree of proper coordination and connected organizations. Many countries have initiated such processes of collaboration among different spheres of society - government, private sector and civil society - beginning with crafting a collective vision of how knowledge can be used more effectively for economic development.
Many countries, however, perhaps the majority according to a World Bank survey (1995), have only recently begun to respond to the globalization of the knowledge revolution; and technological and market developments are progressing so rapidly that many of them have fallen behind. Just as in an earlier age, those countries which participated in the industrial revolution quickly achieved economic and technological supremacy over those countries which did not (or could not) participate, so the same gap is likely to be repeated in the context of the knowledge revolution.
The Sociology of Knowledge
The emphasis of most of the analysis of this phenomenon has been related to its economic impact and in terms of globalization, a new descriptor, the ‘Knowledge Economy’, has been advanced in the past decade to label the radical change in the ways in which the world conducts its business. However, the adoption of the technologies necessarily requires a new approach to the way in which knowledge itself is managed and controlled. In many countries it requires a new culture of knowledge, one which encourages and facilitates the widest dissemination of knowledge. And this is often in stark contrast to societies which are rigidly hierarchical, where class difference is often based on control of knowledge and where the power of the elite is utilised to withhold its dissemination or to restrict public access to only those aspects which will reinforce and maintain their power and authority.
Even in democratic countries the architecture of knowledge management reflects the architecture of power of course; but most western democracies have structures for both public and private sector dissemination of information.
In such countries much public service practice is designed to encourage discussion, consultation and debate about policies and developments - not always willingly, certainly not perfectly, but there is often an expressed policy of intent even if in practice there is an implementation gap (Dunsire, 1978). It may be standard practice, for example, for departmental files to be unclassified, so that a specific decision must be made to classify and therefore restrict circulation of a particular document or piece of information. In a country like Australia it is easy to forget that only twenty or so years ago, the public service did not operate in such an open way and that, as is the case with many of the small South Pacific Island nations with recent histories of independence, a very deliberate decision had to be made to declassify something, for all files were regarded as automatically closed to the public.
There may be legislation through a ‘Freedom of Information’ Act which provides enabling procedures for members of the public to attempt to gain access to government-held information. The free press will often play a ‘watchdog’ role: its investigative journalism is seen as a key agency in knowledge management, its capacity to disseminate information widely through television and hard copy newspapers providing a very real pressure point to which governments (and the private sector) are often forced to respond.
The private sector may also face a similar environment of knowledge culture in which its activities and actions may be held to public account at various times and in prescribed circumstances. Thus, stock exchanges will be supported by legislation designed to ensure propriety in operations by listed companies; a format for relevant and timely disclosure of information considered to be in the public interest; and a system of penalties for redress if codes of practice are not honored. Again both the free press and the courts system will operate, in the context of the private sector, as key participants in knowledge management.
In a range of developing countries the architecture for knowledge dissemination is not so open. With reference to the South Pacific, for example, five of the six countries which participated in the World Bank knowledge assessment surveys in 1997/98 have elected governments but all of their public services operate on the basis of a closed system, and public access to basic data such as population census details may be difficult to obtain. Even within government ministries there are obstacles or a reluctance to share information despite legislative requirements for various departments to provide data to others. Usually databases are ‘managed’ on the basis of information being ‘secret’ rather than a valuable source of information that could be readily accessible. The societies in which they are situated militate against a readiness to see the benefits of an open approach to information dissemination. Tonga has one of the few surviving ruling monarchies in the world with most decision-making vested solely in the person of the king; much information is held by the privileged few and the concept of public access to public service data is not sanctioned.
With regard to the media, Vanuatu and Kiribati have no free and independent press or radio (neither has television), although interestingly national parliamentary debates are broadcast ‘live’. In Tonga, the heavy hand of the Government over its free press (little more than a struggling weekly newsletter of less than 12 pages) stifles public debate about any contentious issue: radio remains firmly in government control. In Fiji the freedom of a once vigorous press has been heavily circumscribed since the military coups of 1987, and radio and television remain firmly under government direction. It remains to be seen what transpires from the present coup in Fiji. Samoa similarly has limited freedoms. Only in Solomon Islands, where a single editor has been a vigorous champion of freedom of speech for the 18 years since he founded a newspaper, is there a real degree of press autonomy; but the national radio (there is no television) responds to all government directives. In all six countries, however, radio is perhaps the major medium of transmission of educational material, in contrast to western radio stations where entertainment tends to be the dominant theme.
None of the six Pacific Island countries has a coherent national strategy for adoption of the technologies of the knowledge economy. Computerization is limited (non-existent in some ministries in all countries). Access to Internet, e-mail and the World Wide Web is very restricted. Telecommunications services and facilities are monopolistic, expensive and limited. And technical expertise is also lacking (Sofield et al., 1998).
In addition to rigid governmental structures, controlling regulations and conservative bureaucratic practices in the Pacific Island countries which may constitute barriers, and the lack of appropriate technical equipment and infrastructure, there are cultural inhibitors to a rapid adoption of the concept of the knowledge economy. Melanesian, Micronesian and Polynesian cultures emphasize oral tradition in which the status of the chiefs and elders is highly respected. The Polynesian societies of the South Pacific, such as in Tonga, Samoa and Fiji, are stratified hierarchies of inherited royal chiefs; the Melanesian countries (e.g. Solomon Islands, Vanuatu) where leadership is achieved rather than ascribed, and the Micronesian countries (e.g. Kiribati) are more egalitarian societies. But in general it may be stated that they are slow to accept innovation.
To the extent that knowledge may be defined as “any and every set of ideas and acts accepted by one or another social group or society of people - ideas and acts pertaining to what they accept as real for them and for others” (McCarthy, 1996, p. 23), then it is of course culturally grounded. Its working premise is that social reality is in process and is formed out of the prevailing knowledge of a society or group of people. The sociology of knowledge is thus the sociology of culture, redefined and re-presented as a synthesis between the social determinants (knowledge is socially determined: e.g. Marx, Engels, Durkheim, Mannheim, etc.) and the social ‘orderers’ (knowledge constitutes a social order: e.g. Berger and Luckmann, 1996). The latter asserts that social reality is not a social fact in its own right but is something produced and communicated, its meaning derived in and through these systems of communications (McCarthy, 1996).
Attention is thus given to the production of knowledge, in turn giving rise to studies of observable properties of knowledge, such as symbols in texts, modes of communication, and forms of speech linked to specific institutional frameworks (Peterson, 1994). Culture is seen as “the signifying system through which necessarily a social order is communicated, reproduced, experienced and explored” (Williams, 1981, p. 13). “Interest in the problem of meaning is linked to a methodological framework that is neither causal nor explanatory but semiotic. The semiotic study of culture is directed towards the study of symbolic and signifying systems through which a social order is communicated and reproduced. These signifying systems and social practices are what make up a culture and its structure of meaning” (McCarthy, 1996, p. 20). Without wishing to go into any greater detail about a subject which has produced a great many texts, it is sufficient here to note that the knowledge economy with its reliance upon electronic forms of communication and delivery is central to the sociology of knowledge as culture, and that cultural barriers may be a major inhibitor to a wider application of the technologies.
In 1997/1998 the World Bank undertook a National Knowledge Economy Assessment of six South Pacific countries, with a view to providing assistance to allow them to move into the Knowledge Economy. This paper focuses on just one of those countries, the micro-state of Kiribati. The methodology adopted for the World Bank's exploration of the knowledge economy in Kiribati was based on the ‘Porter model’ (National Research Council and World Bank, 1996) which provides a useful framework for examining major attributes and issues regarding current resources and activities. The model inter-relates the following components of a dynamic operating environment:
the physical and social attributes of the economy, the natural resources and basic infrastructure;
the structure of telecommunications, information technology and information industries, and the way they devise strategy and compete;
aggregate and industry demand conditions;
the supporting and related industries;
the role of government; and
In the case of Kiribati, the role of government over the private sector is so dominant that the emphases of Porter's model required some adjustment. Social factors are also a major determinant of the way in which the economy functions so that the socio-cultural value system requires elevating to a more prominent position in the analysis. Combined, these two elements change the nature of aggregate and industry demand conditions through formal and informal regulation, legal/official and socio-cultural sanctions, thereby diminishing the role of supporting and related ITC industries: the latter are in fact almost non-existent in Kiribati in ther international context. Government monopolies in telecommunications, power generation and distribution, radio broadcasting, news media and a number of other areas eliminates competition.
Some forty interviews were held with key people in the government, private and social sectors of Kiribati, supported by five meetings, workshops and focus groups with more than 150 participants, to collect information for an inventory of Information Technology and Communications (ITC) and in sounding out informants on potential applications of ITC, possible barriers to better or novel applications of ITC, and possible facilitators.
Constraints of space determine that this paper will not follow the entire structure of the Porter model but will focus on those aspects that are relevant to an examination of sociocultural and sociopolitical factors which inhibit take-up of ITC in Kiribati.