Sharing Your Knowledge No Longer a Nice-to-Do
A number of years ago, knowledge used to be viewed as a source of competitive advantage. Those who knew were in a better position than those who did not. Those who could memorize masses of information were seen as being clever – whether they could do something with that knowledge or not. Then came the computer, which leveled the playing field between those who could and wanted to memorize stuff, and those who could not care less. What now became important is not the knowledge per se, but whatever you can do with that knowledge you have access to!
In an article in middle May I made references to the phenomenon that school children have access to Google, amongst others, to obtain knowledge. This has brought about the situation that our teachers at times have to deal with children who know as much as they do, if not more. The value proposition that teachers provide, are no longer restricted to providing knowledge on a topic. Knowledge has become a commodity, to a large extent!
About 3 weeks ago, I heard at least 2 professors from prominent business schools speak about protecting their knowledge, to prevent others “pinching” their knowledge! They do not develop Powerpoint slides in their lectures, as it facilitates the “pinching” of this knowledge of theirs. Hearing this, I felt quite disillusioned.
Looking at what the gurus of Knowledge Management like Karl Sveiby have to say about the topic, the one thing I do not pick up is that we need to protect our knowledge against others wanting to “pinch” it. My experience has been quite the opposite.
First of all, Christo Nel, well-known South African expert and author on leadership, talks about people who horde knowledge as a source of competitive advantage, as knowledge thieves. Take note, not the person who uses the knowledge, but the person (read the manager!), who tries and protects the information. Leaders need to develop their people by sharing knowledge and coaching and mentoring. In addition, the publication of articles and use of presentations are means to enhance the dissemination of information. Here there are no worries about “knowledge being pinched.” To the contrary!
On a more practical basis, I have regular contact with Clive Trent at Backsberg Wine Estate. Clive is willing to chat to anyone bold enough to ask about his viticulture practices at Backsberg, from the upgrading of the soil, to distances between rows in the vineyards and the configuration of the vines in the rows. You ask, Clive will answer. The same goes for the topic of sustainability.
Similarly, the people at Spier such as Annebelle Schreuders will gladly share what they are doing at Spier as well, from working with the brand, to dealing with the issues of sustainability. You ask, they will answer. The same could be said for Andre Engelbrecht at Riebeek Cellars, Albert Gerber at Durbanville Hills, and Riaan de Waal at Darling Cellars, amongst others. Also, if you want to know about what is going on at Tokara, Badsberg and Perdeberg Winery, just ask them.
In the food retail industry in South Africa, the people at Pick ‘n Pay, Shoprite, Woolworths, and Spar will gladly share their thoughts on what they are currently doing in their businesses. They will tell you about their challenges and their problems. They will even show you their current strategies. Granted, the latter is clear for everyone to see. Still, there are no concerns about knowledge that can be pinched.
SABMiller is internationally known as the beer producer with the lowest cost operating model. They willingly share their approach to people development with every international MBA student I have ever taken there. The same goes for their current strategy, as well as the basics of their operating model.
At most of our top schools here in Cape Town, I have had the opportunity to connect with knowledge disseminators. People who share what they know with others who do not, in spite of the fact that they could probably pick up a short-term advantage. However, given their purpose and the focus of schools, people like a Dr Heini Brand and a Rian Truter deem it more important to help grow the larger teacher body than protect their knowledge against being pinched!
When you read about the rise of Toyota as a global high performance motor vehicle manufacturer, it also becomes clear that Toyota was even prepared to share their best practices with USA manufacturers. The USA guests thought there was a catch when they saw the absence of high levels of inventory! Today much has been written about best practices at Toyota. The same goes for the experiences of Carlos Ghosn at Nissan, where he led the Nissan Revival exercise in Japan. Carlos has since then told the story about his experience with the remarkable turnaround at Nissan on various stages of the world – for everyone to learn from!
The bottom line is that the protection of knowledge by an individual as a source of competitive advantage is no longer a valid strategy – and I truly doubt whether it ever was a sustainable strategy in the first place! If you would like to develop a network of people interested in your skills, spread your knowledge. Put it on the web. Develop presentations and then provide it free of charge on the web.
This is exactly what Alexander Osterwalder is doing. He has co-authored a book on Business Model Generation after publishing various presentations on the subject on the web. Yet his book is still highly sought after. Yet he himself is still highly sought after, both as a consultant and as a speaker on the subject. His spreading of his knowledge to anyone on the web has enhanced his stature and his reputation. The fear of his knowledge being “pinched” is clearly absent, and any protection of his knowledge would have been counter-productive.
A contemporary of his, Anders Sundelin, has developed a visual presentation of the research that has been done since 2000 on the topic of business models on his website, http://tbmdb.com. This was obviously a long and time-consuming job. Nonetheless, he published it on his website and invited others to suggest changes and additions! The net effect of this approach is that I hold Anders in very high regard and will always refer to him as an expert – and in the process grow his stature and profile in my network.
The same goes for Otto Scharmer who published information and presentations about his remarkable Theory U long before he published his book on the topic. This had the effect that by the time he published his book, I had a very good idea about his work, and could not wait to purchase a copy of the book as well.
Seth Godin, Chris Howard, and Guy Kawasaki are all people who regularly share their knowledge in a big way on the internet. Numerous other authors have a synopsis of their work published free of charge in a “manifesto,” obtainable at http://changethis.com. The latter could be seen as marketing ploys, as they provide summaries of published books. Yet these people also have blogs where they share a considerable portion of their work!
If all the above examples are valid, why then the posting? The problem is that for every one positive example, there are countless negative examples of people who think that hoarding information is a great way of making yourself relevant. These people form blockages in organizations, and stifle true progress. They scare off competent youngsters, people who are needed to develop a sustainable future for the organization. They are time tellers, and Jim Collins and Jerry Porras tell us we need clock builders! Clock builders are people who coach and mentor, people who share their knowledge!
The reality is that if your only source of competitive advantage is your knowledge, you do not have a sustainable source. Then you need to be afraid. Protecting your knowledge from being “pinched” will only address the symptoms, and not the cause. The world of technology will have bypassed you, and though you probably might not know it, you will have become irrelevant.
Knowledge has become like control and power. You only gain control over your subordinates by giving away control. You increase your power by giving it away. I know it is paradoxical, but that is how it works. The same goes for knowledge. If you want to benefit from your knowledge, do not keep it for yourself or your own selfish purposes. Share it. In Afrikaans we have a saying that loosely translated means: “throw your bread on the water and it will come back to you!”
Within organizations, it is only the Polonius’ of the world (see the post “Are your brain cells aligned and in working order?”) that strive to be the “know-it-all.” We need managers in our organizations that are mentors and coaches, people that can help others to grow and develop. Without people like these, we as an organization or society will become anemic and die from a lack of sustenance.
So, finally you have a choice. Do you choose to share your experiences and knowledge with your subordinates, your peers, and even your seniors, thereby growing the capacity of your system, or do you choose to become a knowledge thief? And it is a choice!