Originally published on May 28, 2018
This is the 20th article in the Profiles in Knowledge series featuring thought leaders in knowledge management. Tom Stewart is one of the pioneers in the field, having published two essential books: Intellectual Capital and The Wealth of Knowledge.
I first heard Tom speak at DCI’s Knowledge Management Conference in Boston in 1998. His keynote, Intellectual Capital vs. Knowledge Management, led me to buy and carefully read The Wealth of Knowledge. I found it so useful that I started a discussion about it in our internal knowledge management community, and quoted from it in my book and blog.
- Harvard University — A.B. in English, 1970
- Atheneum — Editor in Chief, 1979–1988
- Fortune Magazine — Board of Editors, 1989–2002
- Business 2.0 — Editorial Director, 2001–2002
- Harvard Business Review — Editor and Managing Director, 2002–2008
- Booz & Company (now called Strategy&) — Chief Marketing and Knowledge Officer, 2008–2014
- The Ohio State University, Fisher College of Business, National Center for the Middle Market — Executive Director, 2014–2020
- AchieveNEXT — Chief Knowledge Officer, 2021–2022
- Woo, Wow, and Win
- National Center for the Middle Market
- Columbia University IKNS
- David Gurteen
- Ross Dawson
Tom enjoys the art of making clever (or groan-inducing, depending on your point of view) puns, as do I. For example, I posted this photo on Facebook, with my initial caption, “The sole survivor. When I saw this, I knew something was afoot.”
Tom commented, “Who knows if that is real evidence, or the work of some facetious planter?” to which I responded, “Tom, your comment is a shoe-in for counterpunniest.” Tom quickly replied, “I thought I’d nailed it. It behooves me to say, however, that you get credit for the set-up.
SIKM Leaders Community
- August 20, 2019 SIKM Call: Service design, knowledge management, and the art of customer delight
- 2001: Preparing for Conversations with Tom Stewart — Conversations with Tom Stewart
- 2002: Preparing for Conversations with Tom Stewart — Conversations with Tom Stewart
I think those of us who believe knowledge management matters, who know knowledge management matters, have shot ourselves in the foot. Not because we have done a bad job of communicating. If anything, we have done too good a job — people have been willing to trust us with thousands of millions of dollars to “do KM.” We have done a lousy job of connecting our efforts to the businesses we work in. We haven’t made strategic sense of our insights into the value of knowledge. We have an economy where it is thinking — knowledge, intellectual capital — that tips the balance between success and failure. People talk about this all the time. But something is missing in the talk — a way to turn it into action, into an agenda for improved performance.
As a result, our efforts are vulnerable to the small and large catastrophes that can come when they are not solidly connected to real results and real strategies. We’ve recently suffered two of them: The bursting of the dot-com bubble and the scandalous collapse of Enron.
These numbers — that three out of four senior executives believed the Internet would completely transform every aspect of business; more than half said the change would put away the old rules about how companies should operate — come from a survey by Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard Business School. Happily, she took the survey in a three-month period that precisely brackets the NASDAQ high. That is, the numbers present a high-water-mark of sorts.
KM Used to Cook the Books
The problem we — as knowledge management types and advocates — have is that a lot of that irrational stuff was wearing finery it borrowed from us. In effect, analysts and stock-hypers, eager to push valuations to new highs, used some new-economy realities (a lot of important assets aren’t on the books, for example) to lend credence to the bubble.
Backlash time comes, as it always does, and we hear the view that the New Economy is only about the Internet — cynically, the view that it was all a lot of hype to drive NASDAQ stock prices to the giddy, effervescent, irrational heights they attained a year ago. Now you hear revisionists saying there never was a new economy, it’s all the same. A year ago in Harvard Business Review, Michael Porter basically set forth the proposition that the information age is business-as-usual, that the Net is no big deal, and that competitive advantage is the same as it always was.
Well, no. With all due respect — and Michael Porter is due enormous respect — he’s wrong. The New Economy was never about the dot-com bubble — though people who hyped stocks for a living tried to say so. Nor is it about the Web and high-tech; though, again, the Internet bubble — which will go down in history among the best (i.e., worst) of all market bubbles — clothed itself in New Economy rhetoric. It was, and is, about a revolution in productivity. A jump — basically a doubling — in the underlying productivity growth of the US economy; productivity grown so great that it continued even during the recession.
Usually in a recession productivity goes down one or two percent — during this one it went up two percent — a spectacular event, and an unprecedented one. It was productivity growth that was built by the convergence of telecommunications and computing. Productivity growth that was built by the managing of information with the same efficiency with which we long ago learned to manage materials. Productivity growth that, ultimately, is built on the foundation of developing, deploying, and investing in knowledge assets.
Same thing goes for Enron. Those slickers did an amazing job of sprinkling new-economy pixie dust in peoples’ eyes — including mine. I’ve never heard anyone speak more cogently about these ideas than Jeff Skilling. Enron’s collapse has, I fear, done damage to a very important cause, the need for accounting reform so that we can get rigorous, audited measurements of aspects of knowledge companies that are not disclosed by accounting today.
Enron, I think, proves the need. A major reason the company was able to get away with the things it did was that we, the business public, were prepared to overlook the bookkeeping, because we know how flawed and irrelevant it is even if it’s honest. Patent medicines sell because people don’t believe in the official medicines. They sell because we know that there is something out there — and we fall victim to the con artists who prey on that.
Sure, the dot-com bubble was irrationally exuberant. That’s not the first time. And Enron was a fraud. Not the first time, either. In 1849, tens of thousands of people rushed out to San Francisco to look for gold. Most of them went bust and some fell victim to crooks and frauds. A hundred fifty years later, tens of thousands of people went to San Francisco to start internet companies, and the rest started telcos. And most of them went bust, or will, and some fell victim to crooks and frauds. But was there gold in San Francisco? And will the knowledge revolution change the world?
It already has.
We Wounded Ourselves
At the same time, knowledge management wounded itself. Seven or eight years ago I was giving a talk about intellectual capital and was asked if this would ever become a fad. No, I blithely replied, it won’t, because there is nothing to sell.
I underestimated the ingenuity of consultants and the fertility of capitalism. This was basically before the WWW, before such things as Intranets, and therefore before IT and consulting guys got hold of the idea of KM. A couple of years after I said there wouldn’t be a fad, a full blown business fad was under way. About three to four years later, a study by Forrester Research revealed that six out of seven companies spending money on knowledge management weren’t bothering to try to calculate a return on their spending. That, to me, is the definition of a fad. And I am sure that those companies got exactly the ROI they were promised.
The problem, I argue in The Wealth of Knowledge, is that a lot of knowledge
management (on the techies’ side) and organizational learning (on the HR side) has been utterly or nearly utterly disconnected from how the company makes money. Stan Davis likes to remind people of the distinction between an organization and a business. The former looks inward, on reporting relationships, org charts, hierarchies, politics, and “internal customers”; the latter looks out on real customers, markets, competitors, suppliers, and money. Too much KM and too much “learning organization” has been about the organization rather than about the business.
You’ve got to find your knowledge business before you can build your knowledge organization.
- Keynote Presentation: Intellectual Capital vs. Knowledge Management
- As knowledge management progresses from cool idea to red hot fad, its value is in danger of becoming distorted. Thomas A. Stewart describes what’s wrong with the “sentimental” and “mechanistic” models of knowledge management, and proposes a different, focused and more comprehensive one. Thomas A. Stewart, author of Intellectual Capital: The New Wealth of Organizations, is a member of the Board of Editors of Fortune magazine, where his monthly column “The Leading Edge,” is read by 870,000 readers. Stewart pioneered the field of intellectual capital in a series of landmark Fortune articles. These have earned him an international reputation as the leading expert on the subject.
- 2010 Welcome and Keynote: Knowledge Driven Enterprises: Strategies & Future Focus
- 2012 A102: KM for Customers
- 2017 Keynote: Woo, Woo, Win: KM for Customer Delight with Patricia O’Connell
- 2018 Closing Keynote: Conversation with Dave Snowden
1. Big Think
- “Connection, not collection: That’s the essence of knowledge management. The purpose of projects, therefore, is to get knowledge moving, not to freeze it; to distribute it, not to shelve it.”
- On the Kraken, a Lotus Notes email list for general questions and answers: “The founders imagined that people would spark discussion by uploading white papers and the like — that is, they expected that users would pile logs of content in the fireplace, generating fire in the form of questions, critiques, and the like. Instead, the spark comes first: 80 percent of Kraken traffic starts with questions: Does anybody know? Does anybody have? Has anybody ever done something like? The Kraken differs from KnowledgeCurve. The latter is supply-side; it’s full of documents, artifacts, and other explicit knowledge… The Kraken’s a conversation; KnowledgeCurve and its cousins are compendiums. KnowledgeCurve is about teaching; the Kraken is about learning.”
- On reusing content: Art Buchwald’s jokes and satiric stories began life in his newspaper column, which he then collected into books, which then enjoyed second and third lives in book-club and paperback editions, plus translations; and then he told the same stories on the speaking circuit.”
4. Woo, Wow, and Win: Service Design, Strategy, and the Art of Customer Delight with Patricia O’Connell