Beyond Knowledge: Toward a Connections Economy (2008)

Beyond Knowledge: Toward a Connections Economy (2008)

As part of my A Decade in Digital series, I’ll be reposting some older articles from my original blog — articles that date back as far as 2006 but contain ideas that to some extent (and to me, at least) still feel relevant. This post, originally written on January 30, 2008, considers an economy that was moving from one based around knowledge to one built around the connections we form (as individuals and as organizations) by making more of the things we know free and public. In the time since I wrote these thoughts, more and more of our IT infrastructure and software services have moved toward open source and into the cloud, the pace of social sharing has only accelerated, we’ve witnessed the rising tide of social business, newly posited models for leadership and the future of work, and even bold moves like Tesla’s release of their patents for free use by any other business that wishes to innovate around them.

You can read the post in full right here — I’ve presented it exactly as written eight years ago. If you enjoy it you can also check out the fantastic conversation it sparked in the comments section at my old blog. This follow-on post by Gavin Heaton is also highly recommended.


 

Originally written on January 30, 2008

 

keep your head in the clouds

 

We’re hearing more and more about ‘cloud computing’ lately.  If you’re not familiar with the term, former IBM big brain Irving Wlawadsky-Berger provides a succinct definition:

“What is cloud computing?  It is basically an Internet-based network made up of large numbers of servers – mostly based on open standards, modular and inexpensive.  Clouds contain vast amounts of information and provide a variety of services to large numbers of people.  Users of the cloud only care about the service or information they are accessing – be it from their PCs, mobile devices, or anything else connected to the Internet – not about the underlying details of how the cloud works.”

This trend led Wlawadsky-Berger to write a series of posts about our evolution toward a knowledge-based economy.  They’re well worth the read — here, here and here (in that order.)  Nicholas Carr has emerged as cloud computing’s reigning rainmaker; he’s well worth a read as well.

But I can’t help but think about a parallel trend that is more about people and how we behave than the underlying technologies we may come to use – the share-and-share-alike culture of social media and what this means about the nature of knowledge itself.

In a nutshell:

KNOWLEDGE ITSELF IS MOVING INTO THE CLOUD

What do I mean, exactly?

Although I should probably do some kind of reader poll to be absolutely certain, I think it’s safe to presume that most of you are knowledge workers in marketing, media or technology.  You get paid to turn what you know into a work product that your company or its customers will buy.  That work product might be knowledge itself (a strategy, a white paper) or it might be a thing (a piece of software, a print magazine, a Super Bowl spot), but the important bit is that you trade in knowledge rather than iron, steel or those things that we called widgets back in the 1950s (hint: they weren’t portable chunks of content and functionality.)

Once upon a time, an individual’s (or organization’s) knowledge was highly prized and closely guarded.  It was your intellectual property, the capital you traded for cold hard cash.  A company would hire you because you knew more or knew better, and seemed to be better able to translate what you knew into action.  In turn, a customer would hire your company because they believed that the knowledge you bring to bear was valuable and unique.  Sure, other companies might provide similar services but there was just something about your knowledge base, thought process or whatever that just seemed more right for that particular customer’s needs.

Where did all that proprietary intellectual capital come from?  Some of it was (and is) truly original thinking on the part of the individuals that make up the knowledge workforce.  But, truth be told, much of it was lifted from other sources or, more likely,synthesize from multiple fonts of raw material.  However, more often than not even those sources or raw materials required an outlay of cash — they were books by experts, expensive seminars by thought leaders and, of course, college educations.  Or they required a potentially significant outlay of time and attention — weekly breakfasts with a mentor, an unpaid (or low paying) internship where you learned just the bare-boned fundamentals of what people actually do in the industry you one day hoped to join.  In any case, knowledge was costly, to some extent scarce and maybe even out of reach to all but a chosen few (who got that internship, who could afford that college education, who scraped together the money for that eye-opening seminar.)

OK – right – so fast forward to the Internet Age and more specifically the Social Media Age.  The Internet has, of course, made knowledge more readily accessible and increasingly free (or close to it.)  Purveyors of social media have taken that a step further – many steps further, in fact.

I’ll use myself as a case in point — not because I am the web’s foremost purveyor of free brilliance but because I know what I’ve shared and, to an extent, how many people have received free knowledge.  Well, I share ideas every week (nearly every day) on this blog – some are good, some are bad and some are simply works in progress.  And more than 1,000 people access this knowledge via RSS every day and some countless others may discover an idea or two through Google and the long tail effect.  I’ve shared 12 presentations on Slideshare.net and these have amassed a total of more than 25,000 views.

That’s an awful lot of knowledge that has gone beyond my head (where it was proprietary information, at least until the point someone – usually an employer or a client – wrote a check to buy some of my thinking) and is now quite literally resident in the Internet Cloud (for free and forever.)  Even at a hypothetical $1/view, those 25,000 Slideshare views start to look like real money.  Even more so if, instead of posting the presentations under a share-and-share-alike Creative Commons license, I charged even 50 companies just $1,000 for an in-person seminar during which I presented one of those same slide decks (I’ve been paid more than that to speak and there are plenty of people that earn upwards of $20,000 for just one presentation.)

Do I share everything I know?  Of course not.  But even two years ago, I wouldn’t have shared anything — not unless I worked with you or for you.  And if I worked for you, you probably wouldn’t have had it any other way.  My “knowledge output” was work-for-hire and, if you paid for it, it was now yourproprietary information.  (If you work for a large corporation, you most likely signed a confidentiality agreement and something acknowledging that anything you think up while on that corporation’s payroll that is relevant to the corporation’s business is in fact property of the corporation.)

But as I implied a couple of paragraphs back, this isn’t about me per se.  It’s about the fact that there are thousands upon thousands of “me’s” sharing their knowledge, documenting their theories and their thought processes, helping others make those slippery connections between seemingly disparate ideas.  And many of them are doing it through blogging, podcasting or presenting at Podcamps, among other things — free to anyone with a web browser.  And I’m not arguing that it should be otherwise (no I’m not saying I should bill y’all for each time you’ve downloaded a slide set or read a post) but…

IS KNOWLEDGE BECOMING A COMMODITY

If you want expertise on a given topic, you don’t need to hire one expert (or even one company of experts.)  You might simply need to draw the best thinking from hundreds of experts, all of whom have chosen to freely share their thinking online.  And the very same information that is accessible to you is accessible to your competitors and just about anyone else who cares to look for it.

And if I think about why I share, I realize that it is less about self-expression than it is about a realization that for everything I “put in,” I will get that much more out — many times over. No matter what I know (or think I know), I realize that “we are smarter than me” and that my own ideas are better in combination with the countless other ideas from other thinkers on virtually any topic I care about.  Sharing is the ticket to ride or (to get all retro cyberpunk on you) my knowledge permits me to “jack in” to a knowledge base that is bigger, better and widely distributed – yet easily and freely accessible to all.

IS THE WEB BECOMING ONE GIANT CROWDSOURCED BRAIN?

That’s a pretty powerful concept — and one that I’d argue is far more significant than the architectural implications of cloud computing technology (though the evolution of one is almost assuredly contingent upon the evolution of the other.)

But if you buy into this concept, doesn’t it also mean that we are moving beyond – not toward – the knowledge economy, at least beyond the economy that puts a significant monetary value on proprietary knowledge?

At least among social media circles, we seem to place more value on the people who share most freely than we do on those who are “knowledge misers.”  Sharers become the individuals (and sometimes companies) that amass the largest networks, yield the greatest amount of influence, are tapped by mainstream media reporters and conference organizers to share their knowledge in additional forums (often for nothing more than the promise of ‘exposure’), are most often shortlisted for job opportunities or consulting gigs.  Or at a personal level, some person may hire my firm for a project or me for a speaking gig because something I share on my blog or a concept I present in a public slideshow resonates for them – but the number of times that has happened is far exceeded by the number of times I’ve met people who have thanked me (in person, over email, through comments or by becoming and remaining a loyal reader/follower/fan/friend/whatever) for giving them free reign over some of my ideas.

So at the end of the day, knowledge — and more specifically knowledge freely shared (in both senses of the word ‘free’) — might be a currency, but is the true value shifting beyond knowledge to “connections?”  In other words, is knowledge becoming nothing more than a conduit to connections, while connections are becoming the bankable asset?

It may have always been true that “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”  But if knowledge is becoming a commodity, I’d take that age-old maxim a step further.  I’d argue that over time — just as agrarian economies gave way to industrial economies and industrial economies have shifted to knowledge economies — our current knowledge-based economy will become:

A CONNECTIONS ECONOMY

Maybe it already has.  At a minimum, the shift is certainly underway.

I’ve shared my thinking here – so I’d love it if you’d share some of your own. Jack in and let me know your thoughts.

About the Author