posted 21 Nov 2006 in Volume 10 Issue 3
Treading Lightly: The Hidden Wisdom of the World’s Oldest People
Authors: Professor Karl-Erik Sveiby and Tex Skuthorpe
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Review by Graeme Burton
The stories of an Aboriginal society in Australia and the lessons they may be able to provide for the world today might not strike many as a particularly fertile basis for a book from a professor of knowledge management. But such an attitude might lead potential readers to fall into the same trap as the early Europeans who ‘discovered’ Australia more than 200 years ago.
What they found was a society without any apparent leaders, not much technology, as far as they could see (apart from boomerangs, of course) and people who could neither read, nor write – because the Aborigines had never developed an alphabet to express their language.
For many early European travellers, this only fuelled their contempt. Yet if they had examined Aboriginal society with less prejudice and more sophistication, what they would have seen would have confounded them.
Aboriginal society did not lack leaders because everyone could be a leader in a particular activity, such as hunting – it just lacked the kind of all-powerful dictatorial/monarchical leaders of Europe. In many respects Aboriginal ‘government’ was highly sophisticated with the principles of a division of power considered paramount.
Furthermore, the technology that had been developed in spheres such as farming was designed to work in harmony with nature and was therefore overlooked by many; they simply did not recognise it, even when they were walking through cultivated fields or catching fish in a pool that formed part of an Aboriginal ‘living larder’.
While there may have been no books to read, Aboriginal culture was full of stories, songs and dances that helped to develop a highly homogenous culture from an early age, to tell people what the law was and how they should behave, as well as to communicate news across the continent in days. Art was also highly developed. And tangible goods were traded the length and breadth of the continent via a remarkable system of trade based on trust.
Items were simply left at designated trading posts for members of neighbouring tribes to pick up. They would be expected to leave items of a similar value in exchange. News, information, songs and stories were also traded. What is more, all this lasted for some 40,000 continuous years – longer than other civilisation known to man today. How did they do it?
Karl-Erik Sveiby’s interest in Aboriginal culture was stoked in 1999 following an exchange with Aboriginal artist Tex Skuthorpe, a member of the Nhunggabarra people. “What is the word for ‘knowledge’ in your language?” he asked. “We don’t have a word for it,” replied Skuthorpe.
For a professor of knowledge management, such a response was especially hard to comprehend, until Skuthorpe explained: “Our land is our knowledge, we walk on the knowledge... Everything is knowledge. We don’t need a word for knowledge, I guess.” What Skuthorpe offered Sveiby was a new way of looking at knowledge and the way people live.
Sveiby could not have been talking to a better person. The traditional role of his family had been to learn, record and teach the stories that contain the law of his people. And Treading Lightly is awash with stories, as well as history and analysis. These stories are more than entertainment. They carry a message: about rules, behaviour, history and life. One, for example, of an owl call Muuboop and Baaluu, the moon, illustrates the importance of trade.
Muuboop had made for himself a fine collection of boomerangs, spears, rugs and other items. He was so proud of his work, that he refused to give any to Baaluu, not even a rug on a cold night. “I never lend or give anything I have made,” said Muuboop. Baaluu went away and built himself a shelter instead. That night, however, the rain came down in floods and ruined all Muuboop’s hard work – and washing him away in the process.
The story illustrates the importance of trade and the futility of stockpiling goods – if Muuboop had given the rug to Baaluu, he might have received something equally useful in return.
So what is there for the knowledge management practitioner to learn? Well, the simple power of story-telling for a start. Stories held Aboriginal society together – they helped shape common rules and culture across the whole continent, to bind children into the society in which they would grow, and served as a communication medium for important news.
Aborigines lived equitably and peacefully, while maintaining their environment, for tens of thousands of years. They did not need kings, khans, emperors, prime ministers or presidents to tell them what to do. Everyone (pretty much) knew right from wrong.
For readers, while the book will provide some testimony to the power of storytelling, it is certainly not intended to provide KM lessons.
Nevertheless practitioners will find it a compelling read in its own right – but a book, perhaps, for the Christmas list rather than the corporate library.