Monday, February 21, 2011

Whose Knowledge Is It Anyway?

In previous posts I have discussed the shifting relationship between employer and employee in terms of the ownership and responsibility for knowledge. Many people are taking advantage of the web 2.0 revolution — through blogs, wikis, etc. — to assert the individuality of what they know and their hard-won professional experience.

Employment always combines a certain amount of both the carrot and the stick. As much as you might enjoy what you do professionally, there are always a few things that are necessary for the company that you would choose not to do if given the option. So, the employer/employee relationship is always a collaboration, a compromise of activities that meet the needs of each.

Salary, bonuses, and promotions are obviously "carrots". Performance reviews, management dictates, and the threat of a pink slip are part of the "stick". In balance, these two components benefit both the employer and the employee. However, when they fall out of balance, negative things start to happen.

In the early twentieth century, when industry used the unrestrained threat of firing, low wages, and even physical violence to control the workers, the result was the labor movement and emergence of unions in the United States. As the twentieth century came to a close, the rise of the global economy and multinational corporations gave employers a new out. Not only could work be moved out of state, it could now be moved to another country entirely — leading to 10-15 years of aggressive business tactics euphemistically called downsizing, rightsizing, outsourcing, and offshoring, among other things.

There would seem to be little the employee could do to counter this trend. Except, we are no longer in an age dominated by physical manufacturing. We are in what is referred to as the "information age". Business magazines have been touting the power and transformative capabilities of information for years now.

And if information is the currency, ownership of information is power. So, who owns the information? Corporations would like to think they own the creative output of their employees. And it seems true enough that they rightfully own the direct output and artifacts of work done under their employ. This output may be physical products (such as tables and chairs for a furniture manufacturer), electronic products (such as software), services (such as installation, repair, or management services), processes (such as standard operating procedures or decisions trees) and any source code, documentation, or preliminary designs that led to that output.

But do they own the knowledge and intellect used to create that output?

They would like to think so and often lay claim to the knowledge, putting restrictions on what their employees can do with that information during — and in some cases after — their employment. But unlike the industrial age where the means of production were tangible objects (such as looms, kilns, and presses), today the means of production is knowledge.

And knowledge, unlike a physical device such as a loom or a lathe, is not tied to a specific task. Knowledge is also not separate from the employee who possesses it. Part of the power of the web 2.0 revolution is the synergy between frictionless global communication and the realization by individuals of the importance of the knowledge they possess. And make no mistake, they possess the knowledge, not their employers.

You cannot separate knowledge from the knower. And although you can argue that part of what they know may be a trade secret or other company-specific information, the abstract understanding of how things work and the experience of doing it, belong to the employee.

If this sounds a little like Karl Marx revisited, it is not a surprise. The pressures being applied on employees in the late 20th/early 21st century are not unlike those of the late 19th/early 20th. The difference is that — unlike in the late 1800's —the ability to code is more important than the computer you write the code on. And as the technology itself becomes commoditized, the ability to code becomes more expensive as well.

So what are the repercussions on employees, employers, and how you manage the knowledge between them?
  • Heavy-handed attempts to assert ownership or control over how employees use knowledge will produce resentment and resistance. This was true even before the internet age or the knowledge economy came into full bloom. But now it is brought into higher relief, especially when the employee can choose to limit use of that knowledge, either consciously or subconsciously, if they feel it is being undervalued.
  • In response, rather than unionizing, which was the approach chosen in the early 20th century, information workers in the 21st century are choosing to "socialize".
By "socializing" I mean establishing a vibrant, dynamic community of peers where knowledge and experience is traded freely outside corporate boundaries. How is this beneficial to the employees? In several ways. Most importantly, it creates a reciprocal arrangement bartering knowledge for reputation, which works like this:
  • Individuals in need of information search the internet — including blogs and technical forums — in search of answers. If they cannot find what they need, they may ask in a forum, discussion list, or openly through services such as Quora or Twitter. By looking outside the corporate, these individuals are likely to find more unique, complete, and specific answers faster than if they stay within the firewall. In addition, they often get credit for the solution.
  • At the same time, their peers post information about their experiences — either in response to questions or as knowledge in blogs, wikis, etc. — both to help other people and to establish a reputation for themselves as knowledgeable about their field of expertise.
Since the individual bits of knowledge being traded have minimal commercial value in and of themselves, there is no loss to the individual sharing what they know. At the same time, those knowledge tidbits can have great value to peers who are trying to solve a specific problem. As a result, a collective market of sharing and reputation building is created among practitioners completely outside of corporate boundaries.

This knowledge sharing ecosystem is extremely loose; there are no formal definitions or boundaries. The community is composed of like-minded individuals communicating through blogs, forums, websites, and social media with no official connection beyond a commonality found in search results, comment threads, blog rolls, retweets, and the like.

Beyond just the basic exchange of information, the blogosphere provides knowledge workers with additional benefits:
  • An outlet for ideas that are overlooked, under appreciated, or simply out of scope of their current work environment.
  • A far greater, sometimes critical but often more enthusiastic, audience for their thoughts
Finally, the relationships established through interactions within one's profession and the reputation garnered in the open, critical eye of peers can be indispensable in the not-so-distant future. For example, peer connections made now can be indispensible when when looking for a job some time down the road.

And smart companies are taking advantage of this change, often using blogs and forums to actively promote openings, search for good candidates, or to qualify those who apply for positions.

The hyperbolic claims often found in resumes can be hard to verify. But an openly published and proven knowledge of the subject at hand goes a long way to convincing a potential employer that someone has what it takes.

Of course, there are downsides. Just as participation in these extracurricular activities can help establish your reputation as a leader in the field, individuals with an aggressive, dismissive, or over-assertive personality can establish a reputation of a very different kind. When you participate in public discussion for any length of time, both the good and bad aspects of your personality will come to light.

Ultimately, it the the individual's knowledge that counts. And the world of web 2.0 provides a vehicle for that individual to share knowledge with their employer, their fellow employees, and peers around the world to the ends he or she sees fit. Whether their employer approves or not. And, quite frankly, in many ways the world, and the individual, are better off for it.

1 comment:

Jane Bozarth said...

GREAT post! The idea that an organization owns information, and that it can be housed in discrete pieces in a database, is quickly slipping into the past. (Not that all organizations are getting that yet.) There's some literature that might interest you, nice pieces from Wasko & Faraj. My favorite is from 2000: “It is what one does”: Why people participate and help others in electronic communities of practice. Journal of Strategic Information Systems 9(2-3), 155-173.

I have had so many examples of a problem solved by, or an answer gained from, my extended social network on Twitter that I've started taking screenshots of the "solution tweets" and sending them to my boss. My time spent cultivating relationships there is completely justified by the time saved looking for something that may not even exist in my own organization.