Thursday 19 July 2018

"Who owns a scientist's mind?"

"Who owns a scientisist's mind" is a really interesting article about the "ownership" of knowledge which raises some deep questions which are fundamental to KM.

Image from wikimedia commons
The article, written in "physics today" by Douglas O’Reagan, a historian of science and a postdoctoral fellow at MIT, takes a historical look at the ownership of Science knowledge in industry. Douglas is particularly interested in research knowledge, or knowledge of technology, but also looks in general at -

"intangible skills, the deep knowledge of the company’s processes, relationships with other technical workers, and the general know-how that makes an experienced employee more valuable than someone fresh out of college"

This is the type of knowledge that Knowledge Management addresses, and the question he raises is "who owns this?"

Who owns the products of intellectual labour such as research?  Douglas points out that patents (as an example of monetised knowledge) once went to the inventor by default. He contrasts that with the current situation, where companies "extract workers’ know-how so that the company can store and own it indefinitely" through knowledge management, and he believes that this trend has resulted in "scientists slowly losing control of their discoveries, both in private industry and in academia". Where a scientist once had patent rights, now the organisations have taken those away, through contracts and through claiming trade secrets.

We had a similar discussion in 2012 over this issue, based around a LinkedIn poll with 3 potential answers to the question "Who owns the knowledge in your head", the answers being

  • I own it and the organisation leases it from me
  • My employer owns it
  • We co-own it

Most of the respondents felt the knowledge was theirs, and was leased, not owned, by the organisation.  The people who responded were knowledge workers, not scientists, but the principle was the same. They felt they owned the knowledge in their head, much as scientists might feel that once they owned the knowledge in their heads, and that this is being "taken away".

But is this fair?

We are not really in the world of "lone inventors" any more - of lone scientists who through their own personal intellectual endeavours make the breakthrough that can earn them millions in patent rights. Generally the scientist works for an organisation which has a research department, and (if the organisation practices knowledge management) which provides to the scientific researchers the sum total of the organisation's previous endeavours on a topic.

The scientist is part of a team, part of a community and part of a longer history of scientists, who communally develop and have developed the knowledge. 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 the scientist's head in the first place.

So what happens when a knowledgeable scientist or other knowledge worker leaves an organisation? Can they take this knowledge with them? Could they set up a company in opposition to their previous employer? Could they come back as a consultant, and sell the knowledge back to their previous employer at a higher rate? Could they sell the knowledge to a competitor?

Here Douglas takes us through the intricacies of trade-secret laws and the Economic Espionage Act of 1996, where the theft of trade secrets is quite clear (albeit only a recent offence), and then rightly focuses in on the grey area of know-how, which is where we are most interested as Knowledge Managers. Douglas takes us through a whistle-stop tour of what he calls the "1990s business fad" of KM, and concludes that

"(KM's) history shows how far businesses’ ambitions have expanded when it comes to controlling what’s in their employees’ heads. Business owners in early America disliked skilled technical workers moving on to new jobs with company secrets in tow, but they generally accepted it as a reality of doing business. Today, managers’ desire to control the knowledge scientists possess is usually thwarted not by the law but by the nature of knowledge: We often know more than we can say or write down"
Is he right?

Is KM a top-down ambition to control?

What Douglas doesn't cover is the flip-side. If an organisation has managed to make knowledge "common property" within the firm, then the scientist joining the firm suddenly has access to far more knowledge, know-how and experience than they ever held previously.   What he sees as an attempt to control the loss of knowledge should be seen in the light of an attempt to revolutionise the access to knowledge, albeit within the boundaries of the organisation

My own view is that we should see knowledge as communal rather than individual, and that the individual knowledge worker generally gains more than they lose through KM. When they leave the organisation they are required to leave documents and trade-secrets behind, and may sometimes be compelled by non-compete clauses not to work for a competitor for a couple of years (by which time the memory of secrets will be dimmed to useless), and they should also be asked and supported to share the know-how they have been developing, for the use and benefit of their colleagues.

But knowledge is not like money - if you give knowledge away, you also still retain it. The departing scientist, however much they share their with the organisation, still get to retain the generic know-how and experience in their heads.

Both sides benefit. The knowledge you use at work is through an unstated cooperative agreement - the company will educate you and give you access (through KM) to a wealth of knowledge, and you will use that knowledge to support the company. It's not yours, it's not theirs, it belongs to both.

That's my view. What do you think?

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