Monday, November 16, 2009

Knowledge Shared equals Power Squared

I've written this post based on my comments in response to the post at the Gov 2.0 Taskforce site, If I could start with a blank piece of paper… (part 2).

In that comment I made a point that it is relatively easy for government agencies to technically adopt Gov 2.0 approaches. The technology, legal framework and much of the legwork on identifying and mitigating risks has been completed here and overseas - if you know where to look.

However culturally the adoption of Gov 2.0 poses much greater challenges. There are paradigm shifts required in public sector thinking and behaviour. This takes time to work through the system.

One part of this shift is related to the belief that Knowledge equals Power.

While this belief is both long-standing and happens to have been true for much of human history it is no longer true, and a more accurate meme would be Knowledge Shared equals Power Squared.

In the past knowledge was expensive to store and distribute. Those who held knowledge on a particular topic were held in high regard and could exert considerable power - and command substantial fees - based on their expertise.

This fostered practices where professions erected barriers to control the flow of knowledge and keep price points high - similar to how deBeers has been accused (and several times found guilty and fined) of controlling the supply, and therefore maintaining a high price for diamonds.

Indeed Wikipedia's definition of profession includes a number of characteristics based on containing and controlling knowledge, including the statement,
Inaccessible body of knowledge: In some professions, the body of knowledge is relatively inaccessible to the uninitiated. Medicine and law are typically not school subjects and have separate faculties and even separate libraries at universities.
For public sectors around the world the same influences have been at play, as have additional factors; controlling knowledge for privacy reasons, national security, to avoid public unrest and even - in some jurisdictions - to protect political figures.

However the knowledge hoarding model begins to fail when it becomes cheap and easy to share and when the knowledge required to complete a task exceeds an individual's capability to learn in the time available.

This has been reflected in a longitudinal study of knowledge workers that Robert Kelley of Carnegie-Mellon University conducted over more than twenty years. He asked professionals "What percentage of the knowledge you need to do your job is stored in your own mind?"

In 1986 the answer was typically about 75%. By 1997 workers estimated that they had only about 15% to 20% of the knowledge needed in their own mind. Kelley estimated that by 2006 the answer was only 8% to 10%.

Given that professionals now need to draw 90% or more of the knowledge they need to do their jobs from others, in my view 'Knowledge equals Power' is no longer true.

I believe it is now more accurate to state Knowledge Shared equals Power Squared.

While 'squared' is not empirically true, the statement reflects that to gain and hold power individuals and organisations need to share knowledge and networking.

For the public sector this shift isn't simply about opening up access to existing knowledge resources, it requires rethinking attitudes, behaviours and policies.

For example, where hiring practices focus on hiring people with exceptional personal knowledge perhaps they need to be re-weighted. We still need people with enough knowledge to form good critical judgements, however they also need exceptional networking and information processing skills so they can locate and assess the additional knowledge needed.

Organisations that rely on long-time staff as their corporate memory need to review whether this is an effective long-term strategy. Should they future-proof themselves against inevitable retirements and resignations by taking all this knowledge, codifying and placing it in a central location for everyone to access? Should they then open up this location for editing by staff (as a wiki) so that it remains current, useful and relevant?

Thirdly, personal networks can become a source of considerable strength for both individuals and the organisations that employ them. They allow a staff member to quickly source valuable knowledge from their peers and accelerate an organisation's decision making and implementation processes. However to harness this power organisations need to allow their staff to access these networks from the office - the online communities and social networks where professionals meet and discuss.

All of these steps pale in comparison with one of the biggest areas of knowledge sharing - with the community. Organisations can derive enormous value from collaborating with their customers, constituents and stakeholders. However for this to work effectively the organisation must share their knowledge openly and allow the community to see and respond quickly to each others' comments.

I'll be posting more on this topic later this week.

1 comment:

  1. I also mean the Power as knowledge shared. The power of a community of practice is exponentially related to the knowledge shared by the individual members. Let's first see what happens if we assume knowledge accumulates additively in a knowledge-sharing network. In this case, if each person in a network knows k facts that are disjoint from those known by all others, and if this knowledge is shared among s members of the network, then each member knows k + (s - 1) • k = s • k total facts.


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