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.
David Knights is Professor Organizational Analysis and Head of the School of Management at Keele University. In 1994 he founded and managed a Financial Services Research Forum of 26 leading corporations to fund strategic research at £150K per annum. He still helps run this research activity at the University of Nottingham Business School where he was briefly prior to coming to Keele. He has supervised over 30 externally funded research grants to the value of around £3million and currently is involved in 5 ESRC funded projects on Bank Fraud, Business Reengineering, Innovation, Education, and Virtual Markets.