It is a common assumption, and possibly a myth, that the more knowledge we have at our fingertips the stronger our hand and the more powerful our position. But we have to be careful to decide what we mean by ‘knowledge’. And perhaps we also need to know how we apply knowledge when we have it.
If by ‘knowledge’ we mean ‘information’ then consider how much we are in the middle of what appears to be an information storm. We’ve all heard the expression ‘too much information’ about someone who divulges something more personal than we’d like to hear. The same phrase might well apply to the plethora of information that we have at our fingertips and which builds daily at an alarming exponential rate. Most of us are a click away from finding ‘information’ on just about anything that flicks across our mental canvases. We have to be very clear about what we are searching for and what we require to do with it before we can turn such information, such knowledge, into power.
Or, if by ‘knowledge’ we mean ‘data’ then we are likewise drowning in a superfluity of numbers and statistics telling us about consumer trends, buying habits, company performance, turnover, profits, demographics. The more data we have, the more we need to spend time interpreting it and applying new and practical methods of turning it to our advantage. In effect, the more the data, the less its meaning unless we are extremely focused in our use of it. No one would argue, for example, that the major supermarkets do not have an advantage from knowing the make-up of each individual’s typical shopping basket. Using data provided through their loyalty card systems, supermarkets can provide customers with specific bargains or discounts on goods that they know customers regularly purchase. They therefore please the customer, increase their loyalty, build their business and sharpen their competitive edge. So in this example, data is power – data mediated by sophisticated software.
But, generally speaking, the more the data available the more one requires highly specialist IT systems and processes to interpret it to one’s business advantage and, equally, the more the data is likely to be of low general value.
In the past, knowledge in business was primarily linked to information about financial performance.
I once worked in a very large family-owned group of companies which consisted of bosses, middle managers and workers. The workers were divided up into more than 25 levels of ability, with graduations of pay representing their different skills – you might get a halfpenny more per hour in one level than in another.
In this heavily unionised, ‘jobsworthy’ environment the only time employees learned anything about the company’s finances was when the company was in trouble. By contrast, in the good times, it suited the bosses to keep their cards close; they didn’t want everyone in the chain to push for more money because they were aware of the company’s success.
In those days – and until quite recently – the ones who benefited from having the knowledge tended to be the accountants. While all they had was historical knowledge – ie of company performance until the previous quarter – they knew how the company was performing and they had information about supply and demand that allowed them to make their own judgements about continuing trade.
More recently, because of the sea change in business brought about by computerisation and communications technologies, the power-base shifted from the senior accountant to the senior IT officer. I have known a situation in which we introduced a new and complex IT system but we relied rather too heavily on one IT officer who saw himself as increasingly indispensable because he alone knew the intricacies of the new system; he wasn’t prepared to share this with anyone else. Be advised that two or three people at least should be trained in the use of these key systems in your company – it can be dangerous to have all the eggs in one basket.
But times have truly changed now. While I believe in keeping a certain amount of top strategic information – more at the level of ideas and considerations rather than actual strategies – close to my chest, I have seen time and time again that knowledge itself is truly empowering and works most creatively when it is properly shared. The more your workforce understands and shares your vision for the company, and its business objectives, the more empowered, motivated and committed your employees are likely to be.
More than this, if you can organise a means of communicating ideas from the shop floor up to management – and vice versa – so that people are listened to, you will find that everyone becomes constructively involved in shaping the business and helping the leadership team to determine year-on-year objectives. (Apart from which, it’s utterly pointless trying to keep employees in the dark when so much company information is so readily available.)
Depending on the size of the company the issue of knowledge is highly complex. In the last ten years we have seen new roles created within the operating board of large companies, with titles such as head of knowledge management, and head of internal communications. Enormous efforts are generally being made to streamline and co-ordinate messages, business protocols and processes within and across companies and groups. Part of the reason for this is to ensure that key company messages are widely known and shared, while key aspects of company knowledge are kept behind the right closed doors.
In a hugely competitive environment there will always be the need for some secrecy – or at least for some ‘knowledge management’ – particularly in the pursuit of new deals, ventures and product developments. My belief, however, is that once there is enough critical mass in an idea or new venture, the exciting and motivating thing to do is to get your people involved and excited. Knowledge may confer some power, but you also need the energy and momentum to make it happen.
• Dr Geoffrey Davies OBE DL FIAgrE is Holder of the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion, and CEO and managing director of Alamo Group Europe Limited