Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Who owns the knowledge?

Very Honest For Sale By Owner Sign There has been an interesting discussion recently on Linked In, about Who Owns The Knowledge, specifically the tacit knowledge in your head. The discussion began with a poll, with three options
  • I own it
  • The company owns some
  • The company rents it from me
Currently there is a strong feeling among the contributors to the discussion that "the Knowledge in my head is Mine, and the business only leases it from me"

I have problems with this viewpoint.

I think the viewpoint fails to recognise that most knowledge is created communally, within a community or within a team, through discussion, dialogue, on-the-job learning etc. As far as ownership of knowledge is concerned, you cannot separate the individual and the organisation. An organisation is made up of individuals, after all, and knowledge is created, shared, refined, re-used and re-evaluated through interactions between individuals. It is the interactions within the organisation that put most of the knowledge in your head in the first place. You can no more say "the knowledge in my head belongs to me" than you can say "the air in my lungs belongs to me. "  The shift from "Knowledge is Mine" to "Knowledge is Ours" is what I see as the basis of the culture shift that KM both needs and engenders.

So can knowledge "belong to you"? Yes it can, legally, when you copyright something; when you have intellectual property fights. You need to have created that knowledge, or idea, or intellectual property yourself, and by yourself. You should not have copied it, or built it with others. The only way you can justify "I own my tacit knowledge" is if you join a company with that knowledge in your head, and then learn nothing while you are there.

So can the knowledge in your head "belong to the company"? Most of the time No, even though much of that knowledge you may have picked up on the job, through training, through learning, through the CoPs that operate in that company. If the company said to you "we want you to pay us for all the knowledge you picked up through learning on the job. We have effectively educated you, and you need to reimburse us for that", you would no doubt object strongly. However, think of knowledge which is sensitive - either commercially, or in defence terms. More than once I have signed a confidentiality agreement, or a secrecy agreement, or been given access to knowledge under strict conditions of security clearance. That is therefore clearly Company Knowledge. You can hold it in your head, but you can't do anything with it outside the resctrictions of the organisation. You can't tell anyone, you can't share it, you can't write it down or talk to anyone about it without breach of a signed agreement, until they release you from that agrement. When my colleagues and I left BP in 1999, we were given letters which granted the rights to use the Intellectual Property regarding Knowledge Management which we had developed while we were there. That was a clear case of the company saying "we had ownership of this knowledge, we pass this over to you"

If there is no IP agreement in place, and no secrecy or security issues, who "owns" the knowledge? It really is not as simple as "its in my head, so it belongs to me" - not even for tacit knowledge. I see knowledge as co-owned, as community-owned, and as a common property. Common knowledge, not the propery of any one person or institution. The knowledge you use at work is through an unstated agreement - the company will educate you, and you will use that knowledge to support the company. It's not yours, it's not theirs, it belongs to both.


Giuliano Chicco said...

Good post, Nick.
As a knowledge professional my entire career, I've always contented the knowledge was a unique commodity, the only one that grows when you give it away. Or as Thomas Jefferson's states, much more eloquently, "If I light your taper with mine, I have not lost the fire on my taper and you have gained it as well."

brianinroma said...

Hi Nick. One issue with which I have been grappling of late is an extension of this topic: who owns your contacts, either on LinkedIn, Twitter, FB et al? An argument can be made that they are co-owned, however moving from agreement on that sentiment to implementable policy is a challenge, perhaps insurmountable.

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