It was Francis Bacon who wrote that "knowledge itself is power" back in the 17th century. This still has resonance and relevance in today's fast moving world of commerce now wrapped up with the Internet and making e-business work. Ironic then, even with the billions spent on IT, that a major issue that many companies continue to face is that some 90% of corporate assets are held in the heads of people who leave the business every evening and trundle off home. All-important corporate knowledge evaporates, along with the power and competitive advantage it delivers.
The impact of this shouldn't be underestimated. If you look at the balance sheet of bricks-and-mortar, old economy companies, fixed assets make up a proportion of a business's value, reflecting ownership of factories, machinery, infrastructure and so on. Conversely, the accounts of new economy companies, reliant on the brainpower and expertise of staff, are very different. Their make up is very much skewed towards intangible assets, which are much more difficult to assess and reflect in the books. Holding onto all important know-how is a commercial must if these "new" businesses are to flourish and survive.
The same is true when companies merge or acquire other businesses. Integrating different systems, holding onto knowledge and accessing it becomes a headache any IT manager or director can associate with.
The challenge for us all is how to address this in our electronic working environment. What is needed is a way of mapping corporate processes. For example, how one clerk issues a loan to a customer at a bank, so that if he or she should leave, a co-worker could pick things up utilising the approaches and experiences that individual gained. We need to encourage staff to dump their brains, their knowledge, onto the system for access by all.
IT can help with this process. The Web gives an attractive front end and search facilities, but tools must be simple and intuitive (otherwise people won't use them). We must shift our thinking and strive to foster a closer relationship between IT and HR to entice staff to become knowledge sharers not knowledge hoarders.
As Bacon said, if you own knowledge, you own power. But herein lies the rub. Many staff may consider giving up their knowledge as giving up their bargaining power in the workplace. Companies, on the other hand, feel entitled to it as they've invested in the users and pay them! Reward systems must be altered to not only reflect performance, productivity and attendance in the workplace, but the sharing of information. Economic criteria should be applied - people input information, it is used and the business pays them. Information becomes like TV - you pay to use.
There are lots of tools and portals exploding onto the market which allow one to access information from various disparate sources. But this only effects corporate efficiency - it's easier and faster to eke out data. Nothing new is being generated, there's no real, tangible value-add for the business and knowledge is still lost.
If knowledge is power, it is certainly organisational life blood, with obvious implications for the success of the business. Put another way, to paraphrase Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, show me the knowledge and I"ll show you the money.
Steve Blythe is CEO and founder, Appsolut Software