Who controls what gets defined as skill or knowledge can be an indeterminate struggle in many organizations. Knights and McCabe attempt to understand conflicting interpretations of skills and knowledge around the introduction of a new automated production line in a manufacturing plant by making use of the concepts of distal and proximal organization. Employees and management often draw on a distal understanding of skill/knowledge, thereby treating it as a result or an outcome, a finished object, which one either possesses or is dispossessed of. By contrast, a proximal understanding would focus on relations, processes and representations that are continuous, unfinished, partial and precarious. Knights and McCabe argue that management adopts a distal perspective because it stresses that employees cannot lose skill/knowledge that they already possess, whereas employees also adopt a distal perspective in believing that they can. They then argue that a proximal understanding is capable of providing greater insight and of opening up new “patterns of possibility.” The distinction between a fixed (distal) ontology and a fluid (proximal) one is thus suggested as having meaning for the potential actions of managers.
Darren McCabe has published on a number of workplace innovations including Total Quality Management, Business Process Reengineering and Teamwork. He has a broad interest in the cultural conditions of work, power, resistance, identity and subjectivity. He is generally interested in qualitative/ethnographic research and has conducted research in the Financial Services and Manufacturing sectors.