'One great symbiotic association'

'One great symbiotic association'

This note arises from reading 'The Overstory' by Richard Powers (2018), combined with conversation with a friend who is working on a tree disease research project.

​The collective power of a 'dizzy network' of experts.

'It thrills her to sit at meals and be part of the laughter and shared data, the dizzy network trading in discoveries. The whole group of them looking. Birders, geologists, microbiologists, ecologists, evolutionary zoologists, soil experts, high priests of water. Each of them knows minute, local truths. Some work on projects designed to run for two hundred years or more. Some are straight out of Ovid, humans on their way to turning into greener things. Together, they form one great symbiotic association, like the ones they study.'.{o
Picture by Vita-Marija Murenaita from Unsplash


'The Overstory' by Richard Powers is magnificent. A massive, redwood-sized, monumental tribute to trees and with a huge canopy of an overstory, as well as a rich and complex understory.

And it's unexpectedly relevant, when read through a lens of knowledge management, which I am looking through just now, and when combined with conversations I've been having with a friend about professional gaze and vernacular knowledge.

A particular challenge which dogs most collaborations is how to create a place in which the border crossings between different disciplines deepen and broaden collective understanding.

The 'great symbiotic association' in 'The Overstory' has grown naturally. In less natural circumstances, there are some things to bear in mind. Here are two of them.


1. Professional gaze, angle and timescales

Imagine an oak tree. In a forest. Then imagine a group of researchers, epidemiologists, practitioners and forest managers, tree surgeons, local politicians, councillors, artists. Not just those who are there today, but those who, in the past may have planted the tree, pollarded it, worked with or researched the tree over hundreds of years as knowledge, politics and land and tree management practices have changed.

Each professional brings to the tree their own professional gaze. Those gazes might collide in timescale (hundreds of years, right down to a short political cycle), in priority (manage the forest, make the forest something for everyone), in languages untranslated or new languages for old things.

But it's more than a functional and technical knowledge, there's a deep national narrative here too, a mythical quality to oaks, to trees, to forests and what they mean in childhood, as adults, as a nation.

2. Lost in translation: the gap between vernacular and systemic knowledge

Much is also lost in translation. Not just because words, values, timescales, professional gaze might differ from person to person. But there is a kind of knowledge class war here. The (often deeply tacit) knowhow derived from first hand experience, or the social construction of knowledge, is often disconnected from the academic models, theories and frames of reference of systemic, strategic and policy-making knowledge.

Powers might call the first the understory, and the latter the overstory perhaps.

So what are the bridging mechanisms, the knowledge translating that will carry locally derived micro knowledge out of its micro climate and into other places where it can do good work and connect with the systemic narrative?

In other words, how do we, in knowledge management, connect the understories and the overstory?