Guest post from vice-president of the Danish Association of Social Workers, Niels Christian Barkholt: Knowledge sharing in social work
In June this year I attended a Nordic social work conference in Helsinki, and I was fascinated by a presentation given by Niels Christian Barkholt, the vice-president of the Danish Association of Social Workers, about the use of ‘knowledge’ in social work. The ideas he sought to convey, about the need for professionals to reclaim the production, ownership and use of knowledge from governments, and about how knowledge is transmitted, learned and put into practice - above all, socially and collectively - really chimed for me, as a learner, practitioner, trainer and now as the chair of a professional association. We can’t learn to use new knowledge just by reading a book, or through a web portal. We have to communicate with others, and we - as professional associations* - have to create ‘infrastructures of knowledge’ that enable and encourage social workers to do this, to talk and to ask each other questions.
One example Niels gave as part of such an infrastructure was a Facebook group designed for Danish social workers to share their knowledge. Shortly after this conference, the College of Social Work in England announced its pending closure and this was followed by the establishing of the ‘TCSW Phoenix’ Facebook group, and the Social Workers Assembly website. For me, the dialogue that developed on those forums showed both the desire amongst social workers to communicate and the possibilities afforded for this by the internet - possibilities which BASW needs to learn from.
Other possibilities for the ‘socialising’ of knowledge come from face-to-face dialogue, which is one reason I was delighted to have spoken at the official launch of the new Merseyside branch of BASW last week. But that’s for another blog post - for this one, I invited Niels to write up his presentation to be published as a guest post here, and I am really pleased that he has done so. An example of international knowledge-sharing in action!
*It will aid your understanding of what Niels is saying here if I explain that the Danish Association of Social Workers is a trade union as well as being a professional association.
Politics of knowledge, by Niels Christian Barkholt
I gave a short talk on knowledge-sharing and knowledge-based practice in social work at the Nordic Social Work Conference in Helsinki earlier this year. The subtitle of my talk was “The politics of knowledge” which is basically what it is all about - the need to develop and disseminate ideas about knowledge. The theme of the conference was “Courage in social work”. I thought that was well-chosen as this is exactly what is needed at this point of time, and not only in social work but also in social workers’ unions and professional associations and among political leaders too, to enable them to take new steps, explore new forms of action.
My key point is that social workers and their unions have to use knowledge much more proactively if they actually want to change the environment of social work and the conditions of people who experience social problems. They must change their behavior as trade unions to fulfil this vision, because when arguments for better conditions are based on solid research and knowledge, efforts to create sustainable and convincing change are much more likely to succeed.
We have to mobilize social workers to focus on knowledge if we actually want to change the conditions of social work.
What I want to present is both a mindset and a strategy. It is complex but we have to address it in order to deal with the challenges we face today - that the Nordic welfare model is both under attack and out-of-date.
It is my conviction that a knowledge-based approach can change the conditions of social work in a powerful way. If as unions we use arguments for achieving quality in social work, then this is a very different position from which to make our claims. It is much more likely that we will succeed in changing working conditions if we can document how to increase quality for the same or less resources in a social work based on knowledge.
Let me give an example. In Denmark we have imported a model of social work with families at risk from Sweden, which we have called “The Swedish Model”. It states that if each social worker is only responsible for 15-25 children at risk, and if the social workers carry out their work in a specific way and with a certain mindset, then it is possible not only to achieve more quality for the children and their parents, but also to save large amounts of money. We have undertaken research into this way of practising and the arguments for implementing this model throughout the country are based upon these research studies. Right now 30 out of 98 municipalities in Denmark are considering or actually implementing this model.
So, as a trade union in Denmark, the Danish Association of Social Workers has developed an agenda. It is an agenda that several stakeholders in social work are focusing on: ministries, national boards, centres for social research and so on. We call it the knowledge agenda and it addresses the need to focus on how we can treat knowledge properly in order to achieve our goals. Today we administer knowledge very poorly. We calculate, we estimate, we keep on measuring all our efforts in quantitative sizes. Does this reflect quality in our work? No - it only satisfies the needs of a managerialism foisted on us by government. And what is the effect for instance on children and their parents? The effect is quite limited.
The problem today is that casework administration, registrations and the requirement to follow highly detailed procedures are taking up almost all of our time in a society where resources are much more limited than before.
How can we begin to use knowledge in a more powerful way?
We must challenge this unnecessary bureaucracy and the way we manage social work. Bureaucracy should provide only the platform from where real social work based on human rights and relationships with children and parents can take place. But today, bureaucracy defines all that we are able to do. We spend almost all of our time feeding technology with hard data. It has become almost an art form to build relationships with children and parents through which we can make changes.
In a society where there is a battle for limited resources and jobs it becomes necessary, through extraordinary effort and work, for unions to make their members secure. Today it is not enough to unions to be good negotiators. We have to use knowledge systematically.
But before we go in to that - into how we can use knowledge as a tool of power - we must consider some of the problems with how we surround ourselves with knowledge today.
First, we have too much knowledge. The problem here is that knowledge, when it is being pushed towards practice - it cannot find a way into practice. We have a large amount of knowledge which is not implemented in practice, because knowledge is an unlimited resource. There is far more knowledge than there is a demand for it. That is why it is more effective to make the demand for knowledge visible. We must stimulate this demand - and that is why we must work on social workers’ behaviour. Knowledge sharing and knowledge-based practice in social work is primarily a matter of behaviour. We must encourage social workers to speak up - to ask questions when they meet a challenge or face a problem which they cannot solve themselves.
People have tried to come up with a solution to how we can share knowledge in an effective way - so far without satisfying results. But this is the key to knowledge sharing in my opinion - stimulating the demand for knowledge and mobilizing and encouraging social workers to ask questions in situations where they need knowledge or advice. If we can reverse the current situation, to focus on professionals' demands rather than on those of the government - we will be able to focus on their needs, their dilemmas and their problems in practice, and so be able to give social workers the ability to act. We will empower them so that knowledge can actually find its way into practice.
Second, a limited number of people on the Danish National Board of Health and Welfare decide what is the ‘correct knowledge’ to be used in social work practice. This knowledge is then written down in so-called ‘Actual Best Knowledge’ memos, which, it is claimed, show the best way of working with specific client groups and different social problems at this point in time. The idea is that just by reading these notes we should be able to practise in a knowledge-based way. But it does not really work this way in social work. Imagine if only a few people could decide what a society's resources should be used for. It is practically the same thing.
Third, the strategy towards knowledge-based social work has focused on centralized web portals. But we have to realize that knowledge is social. If we really want knowledge to be implemented in practice we need to acknowledge this. We cannot click ourselves to new knowledge on the computer, but rather we have to ‘socialize’ new knowledge. This means discussing the changes in behavior that this new knowledge is intended to bring about. What kind of behavior should I leave behind me? And how am I supposed to act differently in the future?
And fourth, the responsibility to seek, obtain and use knowledge is currently placed on the shoulders of each social worker individually. But individuals are not able to make a powerful use of knowledge one by one. It is something that has to be done collectively, and the management at the workplace must provide an infrastructure that enables this to happen.
Furthermore - and this is crucial - research shows that professionals in social work are more likely to make decisions based on information they have received personally than from impersonal sources, such as web portals, newsletters, and so on. (Thomas J. Allen: The Organization and Architecture of Innovation, 2007). The greater the complexity, the greater is the tendency to make decisions on the basis of information received personally. This underlines the need to conceive of knowledge as social.
So mobilization - or the type of mobilization that we are talking about - must focus on knowledge and on how professions can claim the right to develop it, own it, use it and negotiate with it. It is our bargaining chip, our leverage.
In 2000, a young person with social problems was in contact with, on average, 1.3 caseworkers. Today the same young person is in contact with 22 caseworkers from various departments in the public sector. We continue to specialize our job functions ever more narrowly. That is what the knowledge society has come to.
The infrastructure of knowledge
We have to build an infrastructure of knowledge that makes it possible for knowledge to find a way into social work practice. We need main roads for knowledge along which we can both socialize knowledge into practice and also provide feedback to the areas of research on important questions and troubles in social work that need to be focused on. This will create a feedback loop and knowledge-mobilization at every workplace. The following could be elements of this infrastructure:
- In every large workplace there are knowledge-agents, who facilitate knowledge-sharing in the municipality among social work professionals (knowledge being social).
- These agents function as a connected network, which is coordinated and facilitated by the national centre for social research (the feedback loop and knowledge-mobilization). They use each other’s experiences to refine the implementation of knowledge.
- Furthermore we must focus on what a knowledge-based workplace looks like, what is its profile, and what necessary competences should leaders develop in order to create a knowledge-based practice?
Knowledge as a tool of power for unions
Furthermore every union in Denmark (or in the UK) has a major advantage. We have access to our members and therefore to a big pool of knowledge and experience. That is a golden opportunity that we have to use more systematically to create change.
Earlier, the trade union movement could call a strike, which could initiate a negotiation and new agreements. Today it is different. If we strike, the public sector will save money and we will empty our strike account very quickly.
We must restore the balance to employees. We must mobilize social workers and invent a new tool to restore balance. The trade unions in social work must invent a tool of power to face the challenges today.
Every union must provide an internal infrastructure of knowledge. We must build this infrastructure in such a way that it connects every social worker to each other. In that way we can begin to use our collective intelligence to bring about change.
As an example there is a Danish forum of knowledge-sharing on Facebook called Practicecenter (“Praksiscenter.dk” in Danish). In this forum there is one rule. You can only ask questions, for example when you are experiencing a challenge or are facing a problem in social work. You are not allowed to push links or anything else. So the focus is on the demand for knowledge from social workers. The Danish Association of Social Workers has adapted that principle, which means that we are beginning to develop a Facebook strategy. Not because it is Facebook but because Facebook provides a suitable technology for sharing knowledge and information about social work. The Danish union connects social workers with each other and diminishes the distance between the union and its members. Important knowledge which is collected very quickly is extracted to form new policies.
This infrastructure has two main goals: 1) To establish learning between social workers; and 2) to use that stream of knowledge to bring about changes and to develop powerful policy.
By meeting these goals every union will become more relevant as a union. Unions will take responsibility for the development of society. Unions will invigorate social workers and give them the power to act on the basis of knowledge. And most importantly, the unions will at last be able to change the conditions of social work based on knowledge and on what it takes to achieve quality in social work. Furthermore, we will transform our organizations into places where we give members access to each other’s experiences and develop qualifications through knowledge sharing. We have to give each other access to our experiences.
If we create an infrastructure of knowledge and a culture of knowledge sharing we will have the biggest muscle in the knowledge society. We will be able to secure the social work profession for years to come. Together we are stronger - absolutely, size does matter - but in the knowledge society it is probably more important that we are smarter - so, together we are smarter.
If you wish to contact Niels, you can do so at email@example.com. He would be very happy to explain and explore his ideas further.