Reflections on Cultural Whispers by Helen Hasan

11 July, 2009

Helen Hasan was the winner of the free pass for the Ark Group’s Indigenous Knowledge Management event last month. Here are her reflections on the event. Many thanks to the Ark Group for the free pass and to Helen for her write-up.

Let me begin by saying that I had several motives for wanting to attend this workshop and they have influenced my takeaways from the experience.

Firstly I have, on and off, done some community work as part of a small team from the Faculty of Commerce University of Wollongong with the local aboriginal artists at Coomaditchie, helping them to develop a website and a business model. I appreciate the need to better understand ways of working with indigenous communities. Additional the Faculty  is actively seeking ways to encourage more indigenous students to undertake business degrees at the university. Another motive for attending the workshop comes from my research into different ways of organising, sponsored mainly by the Department of Defence’s interest in network-centric configurations. (These are quite a departure from the traditional hierarchies in the military and most other large organisations). This research is built on a belief that traditional organisational forms do not suit the current complex environment, which needs more flexibility, adaptability and responsive structures and processes. I have for some time been keen to explore other approaches to organising human enterprises and was impressed when Karl EriK Sveiby gave a talk at NSWKM on his book, Treading Lightly.  In this he describes the intriguing indigenous knowledge management and social structures that worked well for the thousands of years before white settlement. I have suspected that there might be lessons that we can learn from this to improve our modern impersonal mega-enterprises.

To get back to the workshop itself.  I would say about half of the participants identified themselves as indigenous and most of these had in prominent positions in ivarious public bodies concerned with aboriginal affairs. Of the rest, most worked in government departments and had roles related to indigenous issues.  A few had general interests in cultural matters. The workshop program is still on the ARK website and from half way through the first day the program focussed on the use of storytelling.  This was familiar territory for me so I was most interested in the speaker Dr Karen Martin on the first morning. 

Karen has published a number of books from her early childhood studies and her PhD “Please Knock before you Enter”.  This title set the mode for her talk which emphasised insensitivity and lack of understanding that she saw in the way ‘outsiders’ approached aboriginal communities.  Karen introduced us to Indigenous ways of seeing the world, wanting us to move on from the Sorry event.  Her presentations and interactive session covered the diversity yet interconnectivity of aboriginal Australia. She felt the need to address the lack of understanding by non-aboriginals of aboriginal ways of organising, and bemoaned the way the government and media tend to look only for the stories that reinforce the dominant paradigm that everything going on in indigenous communities is bad.  Everyone joined in and appreciated this session, but there was an emphasis on differences impressed on the non-aboriginal participants that we are outsiders that don’t understand problems faced and don’t appreciate that there are some good things happening in many aboriginal communities.  The group of ‘outsiders’ on our table felt this attitude is not always helpful and that there are prejudices and ignorance in many places. .  Some participants wanted also to move on from the emphasis on people concentrating so much on  recognising the value of their Aboriginal heritage and righting the wrongs of the past to a recognition.  They expressed the view that most people claiming indigenous roots also have a non-indigenous ones and that the future lies in blending both.

I have since thought quite a lot about Karen’s description of the cooperative and non-hierarchical nature of aboriginal society and  am more convinced more than ever that we could learn from them more humane and cooperative ways of working in ‘western’ organisations.   However this would not be just a simple process and would be mixed in with all the other issues of inequalities, health, education, lack of opportunities, social justice etc debates. 

After Karen’s part of the workshop we were presented with the use of storytelling in a study of indigenous children. This was not so interesting to me as someone who is familiar with the use of story telling for research.  The talk did however remind us to be sensitive in collecting the stories, acknowledge that they do not cover ever aspect of the situation, work out ways of recording, storing and categorising the stories, make use of the stories to inform government policy makers who rarely get this insight into way things really are.

So overall I was grateful for the free registration and found the first part worthwhile but am not sure that it really scratched the surface of meaningful issues of Indigenous KM, a topic that I think is well worth coming up again in NSWKM circles.

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