Why informal institutions are superior at embedding knowledge

There should be appropriate formulas for valuating resources that have been sucked from farming communities by formal education

Where formal organisations try to store their knowledge in the form of corporate processes and procedures, informal institutions like people’s agriculture markets pack their knowledge into routines and memorable metaphors. For many generations, the majority of African communities have thrived on knowledge, condensed into idioms, metaphors and routines.


This way of dealing with knowledge has found its way into the burgeoning modern informal economies. While it makes sense to capture knowledge into organisational procedures and manuals, what is embedded in routines quickly becomes practical wisdom. Since people tend to forget much of what they learn, human memory is unreliable. On the other hand, routines are difficult to forget especially if they are part and parcel of community life.

How communities have traditionally dealt with information overload

Realising that too much information and knowledge can be counter-productive especially if people are not ready for it, African communities have traditionally devised ways of reducing, re-using and recycling knowledge. That is how solutions that worked for generations were used to solve new challenges. All these processes were anchored on institutional memory.

Rather than continuously focusing on easy answers, communities had several ways of developing and exploring options. Besides acting as an extension of memory, resorting to metaphors, idioms and routines was also informed by the fact that learning is easier than remembering.

That is why, even today, people may not know everything they have learned until they are asked to explain it in detail to someone. Every African market has condensed its knowledge routines that have become part of how value chain actors make sense of their experiences.

Knowledge as empathy

Where formal institutions think information is everything, informal institutions have discovered the value of combining information with empathy in solving authentic challenges.

Although social media seems to suggest that availing a lot of information is a solution in itself, farmers and traders know that it takes empathy to make information and knowledge relevant to different contexts. Almost every agricultural market is built around trust, intuitions, empathy, emotions and motivations, not market information alone.

On the other hand, formal institutions think providing a string of numbers such as what the stock market does, is informative enough in itself without considering humane situations behind those numbers.

One hopes social media is not destroying people’s capacity to condense their experiences

Of all the enormous positive potential surrounding social media and digital technology, one hopes it is not destroying communities’ age-old capabilities to condense and summarise their experiences into idioms and routines for the benefit of future generations.

Besides this unanswered question, the extent to which social media generates rketurn on investment (ROI) is not yet clear to many value chain actors. Where ROI is suspected, it is still difficult to prove. Until there is clarity, many actors will continue resorting to their proven business routines.

There have been attempts to using return on time Invested as a measure, where the benefit is calculated through time saved by the use of social media compared to conventional methods of sharing knowledge. However, some of the benefits can be cancelled by empathy and trust associated with traditional ways of sharing knowledge. A lot remains to be uncovered.

Charles@knowledgetransafrica.com / charles@emkambo.co.zw / info@knowledgetransafrica.com

Website: www.emkambo.co.zw / www.knowledgetransafrica.com

eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6


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