Floor of the New York Stock Exchange. 1963, by Thomas J O'Halloran for U.S. News & World Report. Via Library of Congress collection. Public domain.

Do You Know the Brokers In Your Company’s Knowledge Marketplace?

Forrest Christian Computers/IT, Knowledge, Organizations Leave a Comment

What’s really going on in the knowledge trade inside your company? Here’s a couple of neat ways to look at it.

David Gilmour of Tacit Knowledge Systems put a brief into October’s HBR entitled “How To Fix Knowledge Management”. He makes a couple of good points:

  • Knowledge management usually fails because management fails to take into account why employees hoard knowledge: to make themselves look good to management.
  • The publish model of knowledge management, where workers push what they know to a central repository, doesn’t work.
  • Brokering knowledge is what’s needed.

Instead of squelching people’s natural desire to control information, companies should exploit it. They should stop trying to extract knowledge from employees; they should instead leave knowledge where it is and create opportunities for sharing by making knowledge easy for others to find.

This is really just an advertisement in article form for his company’s offerings. Tacit makes an interesting product that searches fileshares, email and other stores for who is likely to know what, and then “confidentially” tells them about each other. So, basically Tacit has created more corporate spyware — his assertions that people are anonymous and can reject requests for collaboration are not even naive, just plain obfuscational.

Even so, he makes some valid points — but I am going to take them farther! Tacit apparently uses software to broker the information, which works okay in corporations with fair, cooperative cultures.

But it eliminates one of the most important elements: Human knowledge brokers.

According to Laurence Prusak and Don Cohen in their working paper “Knowledge Buyers, Sellers, and Brokers: The Political Economy of Knowledge” (available through the Wayback Machine) and later in Tom Davenport and Larry Prusak (1999) Working Knowledge, define an economy of knowledge where there are Buyers, Sellers and — most importantly for us – Brokers.

Brokers are the people that span boundaries, who can make the connection between someone with information and someone who wants it. These brokers build a knowledge economy by doing indirect trades with knowledge buyers and sellers.

Prusak and Cohen described it this way:

According to a study we developed for a client, 8-12% of managers across industries are boundary spanners and potential knowledge brokers. They enjoy exploring their organizations, finding out what people do and who knows what. They like to understand the big picture, which puts them in a position to know where to go for knowledge, especially if it falls outside their official area of responsibility.

Prusak’s work with both Cohen and Davenport may agree with Gilmour on the need for brokers, but I have a feeling that they would part company with him in thinking that any IT application could replace the need for human beings who broker information. [On Prusak’s website he goes so far as to say, “We are not machines.”] Applications can assist with some of this, but it still revolves around the culture of the company.

Information brokers can successfully circumvent a knowledge hoarding culture by finding non-hoarders and in my experience, usually do. But it’s hard work and few have the skills and doggedness to do it.

Brokers can’t simply be replaced by IT applications. Pains me to say this, since I make money putting such things into places, but it’s true.

Image credit: Floor of the New York Stock Exchange. 1963, by Thomas J O’Halloran for U.S. News & World Report. Library of Congress collection via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

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