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The Knowledge Society: Trompe-l’oeil or accurate perspective?

Framed within the current debate on knowledge society, this book presents an interesting array of papers that deal with the various forms in which knowledge is used and linked to economic and social development. It is stimulating and readable, and should interest academics and communities of practice working on development and knowledge initiatives.

The book consists of 12 papers — five in English and the rest in French. Unfortunately, for English readers, the book does not offer a holistic approach to the issues emerging around 'knowledge societies' — which create, share and use knowledge for the prosperity and wellbeing of their people. The papers in French deal mainly with the theoretical and conceptual side of the knowledge society and the link between knowledge and development, whereas the English papers rely heavily on case studies that bring factual evidence to bear on the applicability of knowledge-related practices.

The first paper in English is by Rachel Prinsloo from the University of South Africa and Michelle Buchler who is head of the Higher Education Programme in the Centre for Education Policy Development in South Africa. They analyse the relevance of the Recognition of Prior Learning model (RPL) regarded by the authors as a paradigm of education and social practices. From a case study in South Africa, they show how the RPL model could improve training and education in developing countries by identifying, articulating and assessing an individual’s skills, knowledge and capabilities. Rather interestingly, the model emphasises the importance of evidence of accumulated knowledge and skills, rather than an individual's experience in and of itself. The authors conclude that RPL could be used as a basis for reviewing some of the assumptions and practices that underpin the global knowledge-based economy.

Kenneth King from the UK-based Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh provides interesting historical background to how the new discourse about knowledge for development has evolved within and beyond development agencies. He describes the extent to which knowledge management and knowledge sharing — topics that fascinate aid agencies — are related to the older discourse of technical assistance and capacity building. Although King does not specify or explain the role of experts in the North-South knowledge transfer, he describes how development organisations are concerned with how to manage the knowledge they accumulated from project interventions in developing countries. He also looks at the extent to which the new vocabulary on knowledge management and knowledge sharing has altered the relationship between donors and counterparts.

The paper by Richard Hall, co-director of the Organisational Discourse, Strategy and Change group at the University of Sydney, Australia, examines knowledge management practices in eight Australian organisations. His insights into knowledge flows within organisations are less relevant for organisations with inefficient information systems, often the case in developing countries.

Tim Turpin from the Centre for Industry and Innovation Studies and Cristina Martinez-Fernandez from the Urban Research Centre — both at the University of Western Sydney, Australia, examine the 'production' of new knowledge in developing countries, using Mozambique as a case study. They assert that science and technology policy can be characterised by two waves. First, building institutions; second, science with an emphasis on commercial markets. The authors suggest that a third wave is needed, in which tacit and codified knowledge is combined to foster 'knowledge production systems'.

Defining a knowledge based economy as one in which all sectors are knowledge intensive, the authors affirm that such economies have become more global as knowledge is transferred through organisational networks across countries. This highlights the need to build adequate infrastructure for producing knowledge in developing countries. The authors conclude that sustainable infrastructure and firm alliances are crucial if developing countries are to compete in global environments, something already widely acknowledged.

The last paper in English is presented by Binod Khadria from the Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. He addresses the question: 'what does the economic development of a society consist of?' In answering this, he relies heavily on classic economic theory, showing that it is still a sharp tool when explaining the negative effects that international migration and 'brain drain' have on developing countries.

Khadria identifies both human and physical capital as major contributing factors to the development of national capabilities. These in turn depend on the amount of accumulated knowledge that a nation has. Such knowledge, says Khadria, is partly acquired through the global transfer of highly skilled workers. He claims that the current migration trends include 'embodied knowledge' — knowledge workers migrating from developing countries to developed countries, such as Indian teachers and IT professionals — and 'disembodied knowledge', that of intercontinental educational services such as long distance universities.

Alexander Borda-Rodriguez is a third year PhD Student at the Development Policy and Practice Department of the Open University, United Kingdom.