Competitive Collaboration in the Global Knowledge Economy


Presentation by Ron Young at KM Middle East, Abu Dhabi, 15-16th March 2011

It is indeed a great pleasure to be here with you today at KM Middle East 2011 in Abu Dhabi.

The title of my talk today is 'Competitive Collaboration in the Global Knowledge Economy and for the next thirty minutes I wish to explore with you the roles and importance of competition and collaboration in a global knowledge economy.

Let me start by quoting the late Professor Peter Drucker and what he said about this. In his book which predicted a Post Capitalist Society, a Knowledge Society, in 1993, he suggested that we now need a new Knowledge Economic theory. He said of the new Knowledge Society that

"Neither free trade economics nor protectionism will by themselves work as economic policies. The knowledge economy seems to require both in balance"

Well it is now 2011. Was Drucker right? Is it a balance that we need or do we need to be even more competitive in a Global Knowledge Economy? Or, perhaps, is collaboration the new work order that even transcends competitiveness?

To start to answer these questions, I will briefly look at three things:

1. The possible economics of a Post Capitalist Knowledge Society?

2. What competitive collaboration might be?

3.The difference between being just 'knowledge based' to also being far more 'knowledge driven'?

Traditional Economic theory is based on supply and demand. It is fundamentally based on 'scarce resources'. And it is only natural that we have developed a competitive mindset from our agricultural and industrial economies of today. In the world of limited things, land, natural resources, machinery plant, factories etc competition and competitive pricing seems to be a necessity that serves us well.

But in a knowledge economy we have a world that revolves around the trading of ideas, knowledge and innovative insights. The knowledge economy has potentially unlimited resources, it has a potential abundance and not a scarcity. Today, we live in a global level playing field, provided we have access to a personal computer, a mobile phone and the Internet.And it was Karl Marx, of course, who said that power resides with those who own the means of production. Well today the knowledge worker owns his or her means of production, and we are becoming individual Knowledge Capitalists!

So, if learning, knowledge and ideas are the new currency for the 21st century, and have great unlimited potential, how can we best create and apply innovative knowledge based products and services in more knowledge driven organizations? And where might collaboration fit in to this?

My story starts in 1995 when I was a co-author of a book called Upside Down Management. We were concerned at that time that management needed to dramatically change from essentially 'telling' people, and moving information up and down the hierarchical organization, to becoming coaches and mentors and facilitators of empowered and more collaborative knowledge workers.

What particularly interested me is that we wrote this book as a collaborative virtual team spread around the UK. We didn't just each write designated chapters in isolation, but used a new technology at the time, called Lotus Notes, that connected us together in a common collaborative workspace. As we each started writing chapters, we could each read the others work, and gain more insight, more meaning and a better context together. With Lotus Notes, we each had on our personal computers a complete replica of the book as it was being written. In other words, each part of the team contained the whole. And with mobile laptop computers we could almost write anywhere we wanted, and at any time. Our collaborative work became beyond time and space.

In 1997/1998 we had a new Government in the UK and a new Prime Minister,Tony Blair. He was concerned about the falling productivity of the UK compared to our counterparts in the developed world. And so I was invited to be a part of a collaborative team to create a UK Government White Paper, which is still freely available on the internet today, called 'our competitive future - building the Knowledge Driven Economy'. Even at that time, I was not entirely happy with the phrase 'our competitive future'. Because everywhere I go in the world, speaking at international conferences about the knowledge economy, I hear government ministers talking about their visions for their countries to become more 'competitive' leaders and players in the global knowledge economy. Every country is striving to become the most competitive in this new economy. Is that right for a Knowledge Economy?

But I think Prime Minister Blair was right when he said at the beginning of the Government White Paper that "our success depends on how well we exploit our most valuable assets: our knowledge, skills and creativity. These are key to designing high value goods and services and advanced business practices. They are at the heart of a modern knowledge driven economy"

I think he was also right when he said "government needs to learn and innovate as much as the private sector and it must create new mechanisms for sharing ideas and best practices".

In 2000 I chaired the BSI, that is the British Standards Institution, Knowledge Management Standards Committee in London for two years. We were interested in the idea of creating some standards. But the standards committee quickly realized and unanimously agreed for BSI that there was no point in creating standards for knowledge management because they would be immediately and rapidly out of date, due to the rapidly evolving discipline and changes in strategies, methods, tools and technologies. It took the BSI, on average, 3 years to go through the process of creating a standard. Instead we focused on writing guides to good practices. We did not like the term best practices as that implies things cannot be improved. We preferred the term good practices to, instead, encourage a mindset of continually improving and adding value to practices.

What I learned from this experience was that, because of dramatically improved information communication and interconnectivity of people across the world though the Internet, the useful lifetime of a piece of valuable knowledge, reduced substantially. Anything newsworthy and/or interesting around the whole world can now be communicated to the whole world, as it happens, in real time. I was both glued to my TV and horrified when I experienced the massive destruction caused by the Tsunami in Japan on Thursday and Friday last week. I was talking with Egyptian friends in Cairo, through Twitter and Facebook, live in Tahrir square, as events happened. I blogged this within minutes.

So the value of the content of knowledge, in many instances, is no longer the key thing. More important than knowledge content life cycles, is the process of renewing knowledge as quickly and as well as we can. The collaborative team process has a very major role in creating new knowledge.

So, at the BSI we published a position paper on knowledge management and chose to focus on providing organizations, not with standards, but 'more informed clarity' to help them best decide the right strategies, methods and tools for their specific needs. This position paper is still freely available on the web today, if you are interested.

In 2003 My company at the time, knowledge Associates, was part of a European Commission 2 million euro funded project. The aim was to produce KM frameworks, consulting methodology and tools that were more 'knowledge asset driven'. All the resulting work is published in this book from the EC project called ‘Knowledge Asset Management’, if you wish to obtain a copy.

The tag line of the book is 'beyond the process and product approach' and we took the thinking further to consider strategic knowledge assets in more detail. What I learned from the project is that the European Commission were actually far more interested in setting up projects to get organizations in different countries across Europe to collaborate. It seems that this aim, to get Europe to collaborate more as one, was even more important than the project deliverables. We learned so much from this EC project about the power of effective virtual cross functional collaborative teamwork.

And now in 2011 the European Commission have published their vision and strategy for Europe as ‘Europe 2020’. What is most interesting is that it is a strategy to collaborate not a strategy to compete. This strategy is freely available on the web.

For the past three years I have been co-authoring 4 books for the Asian Productivity Organization. All these books, which contain a KM Facilitators Guide, case studies in Asia, the top twenty essential KM tools and techniques, and a guide for small and medium sized enterprises, are free to download from the web.

But also, these publications are living on the web, and being updated by KM practitioners in free wikis. All of these books, and a fifth one which we are writing this year, KM for the Public Sector in Asia, were written a a free Google collaborative space in 'google sites' and all voice communications between team members in Europe, USA and Asia have Ben conducted monthly in free Skype videoconferencing sessions.

Such is the power of powerful free collaboration tools for global teams today.

And last, in my brief history of my collaborative work, is my website www.knowledge management online .com. It represents as much of the best knowledge and good practices of knowledge management, for students, practitioners and consultants, as I can share from my practical experiences.

But what is interesting for me is that I use web 2.0 tools to tweet, to blog, to make wiki posts, to communicate, to collaborate, to learn and to share in social networks like and And although it is very powerful, and quite beautiful for people to use these web 2.0 tools in whatever way they wish, to help them with their work, I have developed a way to use them in a more meaningful way for me, that leads me to continually developing and sharing my information and knowledge on my website, most of which is free.

So the web, and it's tools, has radically and fundamentally changed the economics of knowledge and business models in the global knowledge economy.

So let's take a look more closely at what we might mean by competitive collaboration.

Was Drucker right? Do we need to rethink our work and create a balance between competing and protecting our valuable knowledge, and collaborating and openly and even freely, sharing?

There is certainly no shortage of information on the web. Information is becoming ubiquitous. Anything you want to know and you will probably find it on the web, and probably much of it is free.

You see we can now pump information around the planet at the speed of light!

Searching for information, cutting and pasting information takes seconds. But turning information into valuable knowledge and taking action in applying that valuable knowledge takes much time. Knowledge, and even some wisdom, takes time.

But even so, because of our global interconnectivity and because we now understand and can teach the principles of effective collaboration and knowledge working, and because we are starting to see people working together as one, we are now seeing also an exponential explosion of knowledge. People can now learn and apply new knowledge at an accelerated pace.

This means that even our instruments of knowledge protection that have serve us well in our industrial economy are not good enough for the knowledge economy. New instruments of knowledge protecting and collective knowledge development, like creative commons and knowledge commons, are being introduced into the knowledge society.

So effective knowledge management is about knowing, through a knowledge sharing risk assessment, when to better protect our knowledge and when to better share our knowledge.

We now know so much more about communicating and collaborating.

We know that people cannot be coerced into sharing knowledge. In fact, if there is coercion in any organization, or any society, we know that it will lead to conflict and eventual confrontation.

And if that is not resolved, people will simply 'coexist' from day to day. Organizational performance will be at it's lowest possible. Communications will be infrequent and one way. And we know that this is based primarily on fear. People will compete for what they can, based on a win/lose mentality.

But in organizations and societies based on sufficient trust, instead of fear, we know that people will communicate and cooperate more openly and more frequently in two way conversations.

When people communicate and cooperate and converse, they collaborate and, most importantly they will not just co-exist, but will wish to co-own. They will take responsibility and accountability, the hallmarks of effective knowledge working.

I remember it was Jan Carlson, ex President of SAS who said, when changing his organizations culture, "people without information cannot take responsibility. People empowered with information cannot help but take responsibility".

A fear based culture in organizations is a vicious downward win/lose circle. A trust based culture is an upward virtuous spiral of value, a win/ win mentality.

I read of the President of a Japanese Bank who said that his business ethic is to never enter into any business transaction unless he can clearly see how all parties to the transaction will benefit. We need this business ethic in the global knowledge society today.

So I put to you that effective collaborative knowledge teams are the new units, or the new engines of a knowledge driven organization and a global knowledge economy. They are the new work structure. If you do nothing else, just learn the best ways to collaborate better.

So is there room for competitive collaboration?

Here is an idea. If you effectively collaborate with all your stakeholders, internal employees, external customers, and partners, and suppliers, and other stakeholders,the natural outcome from this will be much much better performance.

And that means that a natural outcome of effective collaboration is more success, in terms of your performance ranking with others, and that means you are naturally more competitive in performance. But it doesn't need a competitive mindset to collaborate well. It needs a collaborative mindset!

The results can be extraordinary. Wikipedia is a great example of mass collaboration, where we can experience the wisdom of crowds in operation, where we can see demonstrated the natural distillation of truth. But beware, mass collaboration is situational to specific problems and industry sectors.

Would you be happy to have your National Health Service based on the wisdom of crowds or the evidenced based process of medical practitioners?

The English legal system is based on precedent not mass opinion.

The air accident investigation board and development of pilots checklists is based on expert knowledge. It's situational.

It's for you and your organization and industry to decide how to best create and share and apply new knowledge.

But, finally, one thing I am very sure of. The world is restructuring around knowledge.

A new order of knowledge is emerging.

I talk with oil companies who tell me that they used to say they were in the business of oil exploration, oil refining and oil distribution. They now tell me that they have restructured to ensure that they are in the business to have the best knowledge of oil exploration, the best knowledge of oil refining and the best knowledge of oil distribution. Who actually explores, refines and distributes is a secondary consideration. They have restructured their business primarily around knowledge.

I talk with automobile manufacturers who used to say they were in the business of automobile design, automobile manufacturing and automobile servicing. They now tell me that they are in the business of the best knowledge of car design, best knowledge of car manufacturing and best knowledge of car servicing. Some have not manufactured a single car for years. They subcontract. They have restructured their business primarily around knowledge.

I talked with Airbus Industries the other day, the manufacturers of the Airbus aircraft. They tell me that they can make more money selling their knowledge of aerospace under license to, say, China than they will ever make manufacturing and assembling aircraft.

The world is restructuring it's businesses from simply being knowledge based, which means continually improving knowledge based products and services, within the same organizational structure, to transforming organizational structures around knowledge.

That is the difference between knowledge based and knowledge driven organizations. One is managing knowledge as a tactic, the other is using knowledge to transform strategically.

And driving hard, within this restructuring around knowledge, will be the knowledge engines of collaborative work teams.

New competencies will need to be learned to achieve this. But the key competencies are known and can now be taught. I call them the Big 5. They are best ways to accelerate the learning, develop the skills, and manage the knowledge, creativity and innovation processes within effective collaborative teams.

Finally, you may find this framework helpful when you are planning your KM initiative.

You can also see where collaboration fits into the overall KM process. I call it the four dimensions of knowledge management and innovation.

On the vertical axis you have the four dimensions - personal, team, organizational and inter organizational. On the horizontal axis you have the four key stages, Stage 1 is improved communication, Stage 2 is then effective collaboration, Stage 3 is then to embed the knowledge process in the daily work, and Stage 4 is to manage the increased creativity and innovation that comes from the first three stages.

Collaboration is at the heart, and it is effective collaboration that makes the biggest difference.

Tomorrow I am running a workshop on 'Understanding the 4 Dimensions' in detail. Come along if you can. If not, you may download my paper that describes the four dimensions in a little more detail, from my website.

Let me conclude my saying that 'Knowledge Management is for everyone'.

If you think that it is someone elses job, maybe the Chief Knowledge Officer or the Knowledge Managers, you have failed.

Their job is to facilitate the knowledge processes, and coach, support and mentor everybody to become effective knowledge workers.

You know you have won when everyone feels responsible and accountable for their own and their teams knowledge.

Was Drucker right when he said that it seems that we need a balance of competition and collaboration in a knowledge economy? Or do we even need to be more competitive in a knowledge economy? Or is collaboration the next stage in the evolution of the Global Knowledge Economy and 'competitive collaboration ' will naturally occur from effective collaboration?

I look forward to the prospect of discussing this further with you during the conference, or you are very welcome to contact me.

I hope I have given you some new insights and ideas.

I thank you for your attention

Ron Young

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