Knowledge, Markets and the Enterprise

Most knowledge management systems and frameworks are built on the premise that we can encourage people to share what they know. However, sharing is what we do in kindergarten – trading is what we learn to do later in life. Most organizations could benefit from looking at knowledge strategy initiatives through a market lens rather than a simplistic sharing lens. We need to rethink some of our KM strategies and examine the knowledge processes in our organizations with a market perspective in mind. Consistent with that thought, Larry Prusak said “people don’t just give knowledge away. Knowledge does not flow smoothly and for free. There’s a market for it. It has buyers and sellers. It has brokers. It has a price system, coins of the realm”.

The term “knowledge market” traces back as early as 1970 when Doug Englebart, a visionary computer scientist, talked about the concept of a Knowledge Market as a consequence of computer networks. With great foresight, Doug said:

It seems not unreasonable to assume that survival value in our cultural evolution will favor institutions which support the most efficient Knowledge Markets (organisms which support the most efficient nervous systems). Then certainly the Knowledge Market will someday operate with more open trust in its knowledge interchange, to release for constructive ends a great deal of otherwise entrapped human energy.

Our work in studying knowledge markets started about ten years ago when we started to examine what we called e-knowledge markets. We developed a definition:

Knowledge Markets are formal or informal community contexts, platforms, or environments (real or virtual) used to promote knowledge commerce, trade and exchange, demand and supply, between knowledge buyers and sellers. They are used to organize, coordinate, aggregate, facilitate, communicate, broker, and network flows and exchanges of knowledge between knowledge seekers and knowledge providers.

We also developed a taxonomy based on an examination of emerging trends on the web — start-ups and other initiatives that have tried to provide frameworks for inter- and intra-organizational knowledge trading. We saw a number of initiatives and sites being set up to facilitate: Knowledge Auctions, Expert Knowledge Exchange or Question and Answer Exchanges; Stock Market, or Investment Knowledge Exchanges; Talent Markets (Human Capital, work, projects, free agency, or professional services); Prediction Markets; Intellectual Property Marketplaces (Idea Markets); Business-to-Business Knowledge Exchanges; Intellectual Capital Exchanges; and, e-Learning Marketplaces. This intrigued and challenged our curiosity and has remained a central focus of our research over the years.

So why a knowledge markets lens? When you adopt this framing for your knowledge strategy (at a personal or organizational level) you see and play the game differently. You realize that people (especially professionals like lawyers) don’t just share information and knowledge, they trade it. If one gives and gives and gives with nothing in return, one stops giving. The currency of the knowledge marketplace includes hard dollars and billable hours (“Can I bill this time to your client?”) as well as intangibles such as trust, reputation and reciprocity.

Back to Prusak — in the book “Working Knowledge” by Davenport and Prusak, the authors say: “The first step in any initiative is recognizing there are markets for knowledge”. They claim:

knowledge moves through organizations. It is exchanged, bought, bartered, found, generated and applied to work. In contrast to individual knowledge, organizational knowledge is highly dynamic: it is moved bya variety of forces. If we want knowledge to move and be utilized more effectively, we need to better understand the forces that drive it.

And therein lies the challenge that the marketplace lens allows us to examine.

Don Tapscott also explores the related concept of ‘idea agoras’ (or idea markets) in the Wikinomics book; and also in the book Digital Capital. Don and his co-authors talk about the markets (or agoras) that exist in various organizations and suggest ways we can harness these in the new knowledge economy.

So, if you do decide this is a good idea, then what can you do?

First, you should look at the rewards systems in your organization. Chris Boyd, from Wilson Sonsini, once told a group of us at a KM workshop that he was handing out Starbucks certificates to people in exchange for potential precedents. We used this approach for two initiatives (one for precedent collection and another to encourage participation in a research study looking at a portal) and were delighted and overwhelmed at the results and response we received. Especially when compared to previous initiatives. A little reward goes a long way. But, what about the primary rewards in your organization — how do you recognize and reward contributions to organizational knowledge stores and repositories? Is it a onetime event or is there some recognition of future revenue derived from usage? Some professional service firms explicitly recognize such contributions as important to the firm whereas others force professionals to do this in “their spare time”. Many organizations are reluctant to have this be explicitly part of the remuneration / compensation system. If contributing to the knowledge repositories is important — then deal with it.

Second, establish the systems and mechanisms you need to support an internal marketplace. This goes beyond the traditional tools we have in most organizations. You could consider variations on the various exchanges and marketplaces we are starting to see on the web. Services like a Question and Answer Exchange or an Intellectual Property or Intellectual Capital marketplace may allow others in the organization to make better use of the enterprise’s resources.

There is much for us to explore on this front. I welcome any suggestions you have on how a knowledge market mindset could allow us to accelerate or facilitate better knowledge practices in our firms.

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