[Guy St. Clair: I had the distinct pleasure of speaking recently with Tim Powell about his new book, The Value of Knowledge: The Economics of Enterprise Knowledge and Intelligence. Released in July, The Value of Knowledge is the second title in De Gruyter’s new series Knowledge Services, for which I am the Series Editor. In the series, we seek to present and describe new and innovative approaches to knowledge sharing and Tim’s book is particularly valuable since (as I’ve said to Tim), his study provides a strong foundation for knowledge services and how knowledge work can provide serious societal value in times of economic challenge. A born teacher, Tim takes that idea further in the first of several videos he is recording about his book, VoK 001 – First Look: The Value of Knowledge (https://bit.ly/2FHAyhz). This interview was first published on September 29, 2020 in SMR’s Knowledge Services Blog.]
Guy St. Clair: Tim, you and I have known each other for a long time, and my students always look forward to and then treasure what you have told them in your guest lectures in my class. The course is Managing Information and Knowledge: Applied Knowledge Services, and it is taught at Columbia University in the City of New York. I predict the students will feel the same way about this book. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me.
Tim Powell: And I thank you for meeting with me.
St. Clair: Let’s begin with the typical first question for every author interview: What’s your new book about?
Tim Powell: At this point, it’s easy to answer to your question. The book is about the economics of knowledge and intelligence, from a practical point of view – “applied enterprise epistemology,” if you will. Most writers about knowledge have shied away from discussing such a materialistic topic – but clear thinking about the costs and benefits of knowledge is the most important knowledge success factor, in my experience. My informal tagline for the project is, “What if knowledge got an MBA?”
St. Clair: Who is your audience?
Powell: Anyone who is a knowledge worker could find some benefit here. According to Gartner, that’s now over one billion people worldwide – about 40% of the modern workforce. My targets include knowledge services practitioners, their managers, their clients, and executives at even higher levels in the organization.
St. Clair: How do you organize such a broad topic?
Powell: A: I describe knowledge value as seen through seven “lenses” — each of which represents a person who could be using the book. We open with a section on the purpose and mission of knowledge, addressed to officers and board-level people. Then we address knowledge as a function or a job — as a Producer (researcher, analyst, librarian, etc.) might see it. Then as an economic resource, as the manager of a knowledge function might see it. Then as a decision platform, as a User or client might see it. Then as a growth catalyst, as a financial executive might see it. Then as a stand-alone product, as a product developer would see it. Finally, we treat knowledge as an enterprise strategist might look at it — as the basis for a strategy. There’s something for everyone!
St. Clair: Why is this book needed now? What is its purpose?
Powell: In teaching the value of knowledge to knowledge professionals, they’ll be able to increase their own value (i.e., budgets, salaries, career prospects, etc.). In teaching their clients and sponsors, they will (I hope) think carefully before cutting back on knowledge resources and people – as so often happens during an economic recession.
St. Clair: Don’t knowledge professionals already know their value?
Powell: Intuitively, perhaps – but in my experience, they typically don’t think analytically in those terms – and are therefore at the mercy of those who do so, for example at budget time. Even the most capable “knowledge” people often struggle to articulate their value to those who support and fund their activities.
St. Clair: How did you come to focus on the idea of knowledge as an economic resource?
Powell: From selling knowledge all my career as a consultant! You need to figure this out in order to survive. I’ve just captured some of these lessons – reinforced with the insights of others – to share with my clients, students, and (now) readers.
St. Clair: What are your source materials?
Powell: Three primary wellsprings feed this river. I draw on my own four-decade experience as a problem-solving consultant and include examples and techniques from my own casebook. I mine lecture slides and notes from my teachings at Columbia and other universities. I also cite over one hundred scholarly references in the field, many of which come from my own private library collected over the years.
St. Clair: Is there a part of the book that was especially enjoyable for you to write?
Powell: Tracing the history of the value of knowledge as a concept was a fascinating journey (Section 3.1: “The Knowledge Economy – Its First 52 Centuries”.) Your own pioneering work is mentioned there, along with that of other knowledge thought leaders.
St. Clair: Thank you for that, Tim. And what about classical philosophy? Doesn’t classical philosophy address the value of knowledge?
Powell: Not directly, since the “classical” view was that knowledge is intrinsically worthwhile – just part of living (How civilized!). The “instrumental” view – to the effect that knowledge must prove its worth empirically – came about during the Enlightenment of the sixteenth century and still prevails today.
St. Clair: What makes the history of the value of knowledge relevant to a modern practitioner?
Powell: Understanding the long-term arc gives us a window on the future. My working hypothesis is that once you understand the big societal picture, you can scale these lessons down to the enterprise level – a single client organization, or even a single knowledge practitioner.
St. Clair: You challenge some cherished beliefs about knowledge. What equips you to do so?
Powell: I have trained at Yale in the laboratory sciences, psychology and philosophy, and management – in that order. Also, I keep my eyes open, and if something I observe doesn’t fit the conventional wisdom, I take note of that. My goal is always to bring the rigor of science to the production, communication, use, and management of knowledge. Among other things, I offer clear, simple definitions for terms that I find have been used carelessly.
St. Clair: Can you give us an example?
Powell: “Explicit knowledge” is a near-canonical term that, to me, is self-contradictory and misleading. In my view (which I fashioned after Peter Drucker), if it’s explicit, it’s information – inanimate and static. Knowledge is what’s in people’s heads – it’s organic and dynamic. I discuss this crucial distinction in Section 1.5.2, which is downloadable (along with most of Section 1) from the Amazon US site.
St. Clair: Is there an established science of knowledge economics?
Powell: Not in the conventional sense of, for example, having university courses on it (though I have one designed!). Related work has been done since the 1960s, mostly by economists, some of whom are cited in the book. The economist Fritz Machlup first described the “knowledge economy” in a modern sense, which was then popularized by Drucker, Tom Stewart, Larry Prusak, and others.
St. Clair: Does your book contain a lot of math?
Powell: Just enough! There are a handful of basic equations – all explained in words as well. It’s mainly “humanistic” economics in the spirit of Adam Smith and JK Galbraith.
St. Clair: Do you discuss technologies?
Powell: The evolution of digital technologies since the 1960s is what drove the development of knowledge science. However, here I stick mainly to the broad guiding principles that will transcend and survive the endless churn of new technologies.
St. Clair: Oscar Wilde described a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing. How does that fit into your framework?
Powell: The price of knowledge is easy for organizations to measure – they just look at budgets, salaries, vendor invoices, and so on. The value – the benefit, the impact, the “bang for the buck” – requires more thought and work, partly because some of the benefits of knowledge are intangible. My job (as I see it) is to make that work of recognizing and measuring value easier and more widely available to knowledge professionals and organizations.
St. Clair: Are there organizations that have had success with your ideas?
Powell: I’ve worked with about 100 client organizations that have benefitted directly from these ideas. Some of my experiences – both hits and (frankly) misses – are described here. I also cite companies (Amazon, for example) with whom I have not had the pleasure of working, but which exemplify the concepts described.
St. Clair: Is there anything else we should know?
Powell: For an introductory period, I’m offering purchasers of the book a complimentary Zoom consultation to help guide them to the sections most relevant to their needs.
St. Clair: That’s a terrific idea! I predict you are going to get a lot of students (and others) wanting to learn more about the value of knowledge (as a subject) and how they can use what they learn from reading The Value of Knowledge in their careers and in the workplace. So thanks very much for taking the time to meet with me.
Powell: Thanks so much for the opportunity to share my excitement about The Value of Knowledge with your readers!