Teaching the business of ideas Chair of knowledge encourages speculation


The creation of a professorship is usually not a subject of great intellectual debate.

But when the trendy University of California at Berkeley this year announced the endowment of a new chair, many academics paused to ponder what post-industrial society was coming to.

With a $1 million grant from Xerox Corp. and its Japanese affiliate, Berkeley created a Distinguished Professor of Know-ledge -- at its business school.

Never mind that some professors, particularly professors of philosophy, could not understand what a professor of know-ledge knows or teaches.

"The idea is certainly a little bizarre -- ambiguous," said Murat Aydede, an expert in the theory of know-ledge at the University of Chicago's philosophy department.

"What does this mean? Does it mean inquiry into the question of what is know-ledge for these businessmen?"

"I couldn't understand what he could be a professor of," said Fred Dretske, chairman of Stanford University's philosophy department and author of "Know-ledge and the Flow of Information" (MIT Press, 1981).

Many at Berkeley were quick to call the first occupant of the chair -- Ikujiro Nonaka, a Japanese management expert -- Dr. Know.

"On one level, certainly, you can say a professor of know-ledge is sort of a non sequitur because all professors are supposed to be professors of know-ledge of one kind or another," said Neil Smelser, a sociologist at the Center for Advanced Study in Palo Alto, Calif. "But it does say something interesting that [it] is thought of as a business subject."

Many academics saw the chair as a statement on how business schools are groping to enhance their role in an economy thriving less on the production of things and more on the production of ideas.

Academic literature is filled with buzzwords such as know-ledge-based workers and intellectual capital.

Nonaka, a graduate of Berkeley's business school, is famous for a book he co-wrote, "The Know-ledge-Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation" (Oxford University Press, 1995). He is expected to teach the way corporations can create and use innovative ideas.

Pub Date: 7/20/97

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