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Knowledge Assets: Harnessing the Potential of Ideas, Information, Experience and Insight

Whitespace logo By Whitespace
29th October 2020

The Technology & Innovation Executive Roundtable group attendees sat down to discuss the challenges that can exist in identifying, developing, exploiting and scaling internal knowledge assets in support of business transformation, innovation and technology utilisation, particularly with a view to creating value for organisations and their employees, shareholders and the wider UK economy.

The Whitespace TIER group discussing potential ideas for information, experience and insight innovation

Key Takeaways

Framing ‘knowledge assets’ as a term

For the purpose of the roundtable discussion, ‘Knowledge Assets’ was used – at least in founding the conversation – in a relatively traditional way. As such, ‘Knowledge Assets’ covers the accumulated intellectual resources of a given organisation, meaning the knowledge possessed by that organisation and its workforce. As such, Knowledge Assets includes information, experience, intellectual property and resources, data, ideas, organisational know-how and even cognitive and technical skills. Building and managing such Knowledge Assets is clearly key to the value of a business and its evolution.

However, an ultimate definition of what counts as a knowledge asset remains elusive, and a key thrust of the TIER group’s conversation considered zeroing in on a shared understanding of what knowledge assets are – as well as what they can be. That shared understanding could be vital in maximising the potential, and evolving businesses with meaningful trends.

Stovepiping, and other obstructions

While it may be proving tricky – if not impossible – to meaningfully value an organisation’s Knowledge Assets, individuals within those organisations traditionally have a sense that knowledge and information are highly prized and useful. Unfortunately, that can lead to the likes of stovepiping, where information or data is limited to – or protected by – given departments, teams or individuals, and not allowed to move or be shared horizontally across an organisation. Stovepiping, it was suggested at TIER, can also lead to the loss and leakage of Knowledge Assets, a failure to connect relevant data points spread across different silos, and information and knowledge simply ‘going stale’ as it languishes.
Being protective over data and information can be instinctual; it can feel like the core of a team or individual’s value and contribution to the company.
Organisations themselves can equally fall into serving the role of giant stovepipes for information, understandably feeling uncertain about sharing Knowledge Assets across the public and private sectors, for fear of losing competitive or other advantages.

And yet it is the allowing of information and knowledge assets to cross-pollinate departments, organisations and even entire sectors that can lend it the greatest degree of potential value. Much as with efforts with innovation, Knowledge Assets can best deliver when made the subject of open, shared and collaborative initiatives and projects.

On a related note, it is sometimes an unfortunate reality that personality and lobbying can sometimes guide an organisation over and above Knowledge Assets. The example was given at TIER of military strategy and actions, which should certainly be guided by information, intelligence and insight; but where sometimes personality and lobbying can serve as a leading hand with decision making and approvals.

Sharing knowledge assets

It was put forward at the TIER gathering that sharing Knowledge Assets can have a tremendously positive impact on an organisation, even lifting share price and growth opportunities.

Knowledge Assets are often seen as something to protect, but it was posited that in the hands of a startup many such assets are wildly powerful, and may help Corporates, for example, build products and services that allow their organisation to adapt and thrive as new paradigms rise and dominate. And yet some Knowledge Assets – like pure intellectual property – are very much worth maintaining as protected internal secrets.

As such, it was suggested that organisations should consider categorising their Knowledge Assets, so as to ‘identify the crown jewels’. Consider dividing your knowledge assets into three categories: what is worth protecting, what is worth surfacing and sharing, and what might actually be little more than accumulated and now dated ‘Knowledge Asset baggage’.

There are also many gains in formalising the breakdown of what ‘Knowledge Assets’ can include; with regard to valuation, sharing, deployment and more besides. However, a collective effort from across the public and private sectors would likely be needed to develop a language, conduit and architecture that could be used to meaningfully interpret and value knowledge assets. The Government is likely best placed to lead or promote that effort.

Static knowledge vs. dynamic business

It was noted a number of times through the TIER gathering that many Knowledge Assets exist as static, preserved entities. That is especially true when it comes to stovepiped Knowledge Assets. And yet technological trends, business convention and market needs continually evolve, often at an accelerating pace. An automotive company with a rich seam of heavily protected Knowledge Assets relating to petrol vehicles and the associated ecosystem might be tempted to protect those assets but at the expense of adapting successfully to electric and AI-powered vehicles. All the data in the world on petrol station forecourt use matters for little if the arrival of electric vehicles means most drivers will eventually charge (fuel) their cars at home.

There is a danger, then, in ‘imprisoning Knowledge Assets’ in the interest of competitive advantage; at the expense of your Knowledge Assets evolving with your organisation. Perhaps, then, ideas are more important even than information, data and IP when it comes to the value and impact of Knowledge Assets. It is ideas and creative mindedness that allow for the application and deployment of Knowledge Assets as a means to address changing opportunities. Very simply put, ideas can bring flexibility to otherwise static Knowledge Assets.

As such, the ability to evolve ideas might be the most valuable form of Knowledge Asset. And sharing IP appropriately and carefully may ultimately let you transform into a new company or organisation. For example, IBM’s effort helping establish an open data exchange to improve global food supply has arguably let it shift its image and standing as a company, embrace new ideas and technologies, find new partners, modify its positioning as a tech giant, and even develop a new, expanded contemporary suite of Knowledge Assets.

Conversely, it was suggested that Blackberry outfit RIM’s most valuable asset was the IP behind its BBM messenger service. That IP was kept relatively closed off; a missed opportunity, some in the room suggested, now that BBM has faded to being just an enterprise software. Meanwhile, WhatsApp arrived, and through openness with some Knowledge Assets, open-source thinking and a technology-agnostic mindset, grew the platform significantly. WhatsApp was acquired for USD$19.3 billion by Facebook in 2019 and now courts 2 billion users.

Highlighting failings through openness

Another advantage to moving to a world of ‘open Knowledge Assets’ may be that failings and shortcomings in those assets – and the ways in which they are arranged, collated and used – are highlight thanks to the lens of external perspective.

Of course, the notion of open Knowledge Assets is problematic in itself, and there may be more needed than templated NDAs and optimism. A considerable shift in the way information, ideas, experience and insight are valued and deployed may be needed. Again, a Government-led approach may be best here, taking in insight and guidance from the public and private sectors.

Monetising knowledge assets as ‘property’

The notion was put forward that it is helpful to think of Knowledge Assets in the same way an organisation would think about physical property, and particularly one of the most fundamental forms of property; namely land.

Consider the landowner with a spare field that has a convenient location as a car parking space. They could reasonably charge individual car owners to park on their land. That is not the same, of course, as selling the land or giving up the advantage of owning the land.

Knowledge Assets, perhaps, should be thought of in a similar way to that hypothetical piece of land. Organisations can monetise the use of the property without giving it away. Knowledge assets, then, can be licensed out as resources, used as a basis for consulting, deployed in Corporate innovation initiatives as a technology to be worked on with startups, and much more besides.

‘Not knowing what you know’

Another key challenge highlighted with regards to valuing and meaningfully harnessing data is an organisation’s capacity to understand its Knowledge Assets: in terms of meaning, value, and potential implementation. It was noted during the gathering that the NHS is likely one of the most valuable organisations in the world, thanks to the tremendous potential of its knowledge assets. But knowing how to use it, who owns some of the information and what insight lurks in such a broad pool of information and intelligence is highly challenging; particularly for a stretched organisation. However, realising that value could eventually prove a significant boon to budgets and financial health. As such, there is a need for the development of approaches that can meaningfully aggregate pan-organisational data and knowledge, and translate it into wisdom.

Innovation in regulation and accounting

It may be that some of the challenges around Knowledge Assets could be faced off with innovation in departments away from the direct management of such assets. It was suggested that the onus could be put on accounting to develop new means to record and standardise the value of intangible. Or, perhaps, internal innovation projects that see collaboration between accounting and Knowledge Asset manager should be explored.

Meanwhile, the presence of Long Term Incentive Plan (or LTIP) as an enabler of conservative thinking, low-risk strategies and talent holding stood as a subject of passionate discussion in the room at the TIER gathering. LTIPs may be guilty of guiding decision making, keeping boards from becoming young and diverse, and as such limiting the potential of how Knowledge Assets are used, shared and developed for the future business. It was put forward that innovations in regulation – perhaps inspired by the system in China and it’s neighbours – may ultimately help unlock the potential of Knowledge Assets.

Other solutions

Several smaller points surfaced more than once through the TIER discussion. For one, allowing for more younger staff in senior positions was presented as a powerful means to be innovative with Knowledge Asset use and valuation. Equally, communication was repeatedly suggested as a lubricant to counter the stovepiping of Knowledge Assets. Endeavouring to think with the agility and risk adversity of a startup was also put forward in more than one occasion. And conversation more than once turns to the notion of placing staff in different roles -or even different corporations – to open eyes to both the challenges and opportunities around Knowledge Assets. All of these points are entirely worthy of more focused discussion.

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