Knowledge = Power, Right?

Toronto’s first Webcom was held on November 3rd. The conference, in its ninth iteration in Montréal, brought together a diverse group from various information professions – communications and technology folk rubbed shoulders with librarians, consultants and marketing executives. We were treated to an equally diverse range of speakers. The program looked at social networking, collaboration and a wealth of case studies in the application of social media in the enterprise. Connie Crosby did us proud with a lightning presentation of social media tools in the enterprise. 

Shel Holtz started the day with Tactical Transparency : the Value of Access to Information. He opened with a story from the Toronto mayoral race. It was the tale of QueensQuayKaren, the Twitter account-holder and Smitherman fan who turned out to be a Rob Ford staffer. As someone interested in the social media and who works in a political environment, this is a case study that prompted a lot of interest. Much to be learned here. 

Holtz then provided an interesting definition of “transparency”. It does not mean: “make everything available to your clients and competitors”. Holtz defines transparency as: “The degree to which an organization shares the information its stakeholders need to make decisions”. This includes:

  • Values
  • Culture
  • A description of the decision-making process
  • Business strategies
  • Business practices and their results 

It does not include intellectual property, profit margins or those things that give you an advantage in the marketplace. He also proposes that organizations should stand their attitude toward information on its head. Instead of assuming that everything is important and should be kept tightly controlled, he advocates assuming that everything is open, and the organization should justify to itself what information needs to be protected. It’s a much shorter list. He also told the story of the U.S. Department of Defense, which recently opened access to social media to all employees. All of them. Their attitude was interesting – they decided to focus on training them how to be safe in social media, much as they train them to be safe on the battlefield. 

Don Tapscott presented an overview of some of the work he’s been doing lately, and gave some of the major points from his newest book, Macrowikinomics. As always, he brought some truly Big Ideas to the discussion, and helped to frame the rest of the day. From my terribly scribbly notes, some of his key points (with my notes in brackets):

  • The “broadcast” model is changing. Communication is becoming a dialogue, conversational instead of one-way. (I suspect this is not news to THIS audience)
  • In the old model, content was king. Now, it’s context. (How does this change librarianship? Training? KM?)
  • Creators are becoming curators. (How does that change the skill sets needed?)
  • Social networking is becoming social production – it’s not just about contact. Groups are forming to build something, then disappearing to reform with other collaborators. 

This being one of THREE presentations Mr. Tapscott was to give that day, he unfortunately had to leave us right after his address. 

Jon Husband gave the next session I attended, and Tapscott’s talk was an excellent launching-point for his presentation. A couple of important ideas I was able to capture:

  • In the past, change was a periodic event in the life of an organization. NOW, organization is the periodic event. 
  • Hierarchy is a prosthesis for trust. (Here, he was talking about how bureaucracy and “chain of command” is used to replace collaboration and trusting employees to work for the betterment of the organization. Engaged employees, he proposes, will always want to do the best for the organization – this links back nicely to the DOD proposition that you need to train people to be safe). 

It was Husband’s presentation which gives this column its title. He proposed that in the “old days”, knowledge was power. It’s a truism. We give money, power and regard to those with specialized knowledge, higher education, and abilities that others do not possess. 

Husband proposes that in the emerging world of social media and collaborative technologies, knowledge is no longer power. Power derives from control of access to information. 

Where this gets interesting, is that those who are opening up access to information seem to be reaping the benefits. Tapscott told the story of Goldcorp Mining (which I believe is also documented in Grown Up Digital). They opened up their geological information and maps to the world, offered a $500,000 prize to the person who could help them find gold, and reaped billions of dollars in reward for their transparency. Dazzling. 

As a government employee, I’m inspired to see how open data has lead to information tools that both engage citizens and serve them in ways that we would never think of. But how hard is it going to be to break the old equation? Will organizations, public and private alike, be able to stomach the risk of transparency? Will they really have the choice to remain closed? Perhaps not. 

For more information on Webcom, search #webcomTO on Twitter.


  1. Here’s a really interesting piece about controlling access to information, and the power dynamics that result therefrom.