Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Whose knowledge is it anyway?

Does the knowledge in your head belong to you, or does in belong to the organisation you work for? The answer is not as clear as you might think.


A few years ago there was a spirited discussion on Linked In, about who owns the tacit knowledge in your head. The discussion was mostly along the lines that "the Knowledge in my head is Mine, and the business only leases it from me"

I have problems with this viewpoint. Here's why.

Firstly, knowledge is largely social and not personal

The "knowledge is mine" viewpoint fails to recognise that knowledge is collective rather than individual. What we hold in our heads is often not knowledge at all, until it is socially validated (see "tacit knowledge and cognitive bias"). Most knowledge in your head of any value has been 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 community (usually organisational) in which they work. 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, or where you publish with citation rights. To be able to say "this knowledge is mine, and mine alone", 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" while working for a company is if you join the company with that knowledge in your head, and then learn nothing while you are there.  That is of course the way most consultants work.

So can the knowledge in your head "belong to the company"? 

Most of the time No, even if you picked up that knowledge 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 confidential or sensitive - either commercially, or in defence terms.  This clearly belongs to the organisation and not to you.

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 Organisational Knowledge. You have been given the right to hold that knowledge 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.

If there is no IP agreement or confidentiality 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 property 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.  You probably would not publish company stories without asking the company's permission, for example.

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 now pass this over to you," but this, I suspect, is a very rare case.

Also, don't forget that when you leave the company and are cut off from the community of practice, the knowledge in your head will rapidly deteriorate.  Then when you join a new organisation and a new community, the knowledge can be co-created afresh.

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