Commoditizing Knowledge

In a former life, I had the great good luck to work with Mike Kennedy of Targeted Convergence (  One of the concepts I learned from Mike was that of an organizational “knowledge value stream.”  Businesses talk about their value stream – the processes by which they provide value to their customers.  Mike pointed out that they should also be talking about the creation and maintenance of their own knowledge value stream – the processes by which they capture new knowledge and incorporate that new knowledge into the general knowledge and know-how of the company and which can then be applied to future product or service value streams for future customers.

Sounds obvious.  So does much of modern technology – things that were inconceivable fifty or sixty years ago (at the same time recalling that Arthur Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”). 

Today, most college graduates know something about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and almost all physicists (and physics graduate students) not only know the theory, but can apply it.  The Special and General Theories of Relativity have become “commoditized.”  They are part of the knowledge value stream of the human race.  But it wasn’t always that way.

There is a story about Sir Arthur Eddington, one of Einstein’s early champions, but a man of prickly sensitivities.  Sir Arthur was being interviewed by a young journalists who, wanting to get on Sir Arthur’s good side, said something like, “Sir Arthur, I understand that there are only three people in the world who understand Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.”

Sir Arthur didn’t reply, but stood still gazing into the distance.  After an increasingly unpleasant pause, the young journalist said, “Excuse me, Sir Arthur…”  Eddington, shook his head slightly and finally replied, “Pardon me, I was just trying to think who the third person might be.”  Obviously, the Theory of Relativity was not in the human race’s knowledge value stream back then.

But, over time, as relativity was used and taught and used and taught and applied and discussed and debated and subjected to experiments, more and more people came to understand the theory and to apply it in practical matters (the GPS in your car won’t work without relativistic corrections to the time signal from the satellites).  The knowledge has been “commoditized.”

That commoditization of knowledge didn’t “just happen.” The explicit knowledge of relativity was taught.  The implicit knowledge was learned in lab and field experiments.  Finally the tacit knowledge was gained through actual, individual application of the explicit and implicit knowledge.  It required a great deal of work – it was taught, learned, internalized, used, and applied.

As companies gain knowledge, that knowledge will be transitory if someone does not invest the work necessary to incorporate it into the company knowledge value stream.  If no one spends the effort to learn the explicit, absorb the implicit and apply the tacit knowledge, it will eventually be lost.  The intellectual property of the company will be diminished.

While not everyone in the company needs to learn everything in the company knowledge value stream, all the components of that value stream are important to someone in the company.

So who has that responsibility?  It depends – what is your organization like?  Do you have functional organizations that are generally responsible for training?  Do you have a knowledge-management office?  The leader needs to appreciate the value of new knowledge and ensure that valuable new knowledge is incorporated into the knowledge value stream – and becomes commoditized within the company.  Then that new knowledge is obvious – and it is used to maintain existing customers and gain new ones.



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