Organization and Management

Knowledge is Power — NOT!

12 Aug 2013  

Knowledge is power. All of us know this slogan.  Those of us in the knowledge professions use it when needed as a banner of professional pride and aspiration.

It sounds reassuring, and probably had major validity when Francis Bacon coined it nearly 400 years ago during the Enlightenment.

The problem is — it simply is not true.  In terms of the politics of the modern organization, KNOWLEDGE IS NOT POWER.  Or, in mathematical terms:

knowledge power intel a

Please read on to find how I reached this conclusion, and what its implications are.

Production and use

I created the Knowledge Value Chain® framework in 1996 to address what I had seen as a persistent and critical gap throughout my career — that the production of knowledge on the one hand, and its use or application on the other, were largely treated and managed as separate and distinct functions.  I came to believe this shortcoming was key to many knowledge/ intelligence malfunctions, and starting giving talks about knowledge-value chains being broken.

The KVC model has two halves — the PRODUCTION half (Data-Information-Knowledge), and the USE half (Decisions-Actions-Value).  In an ideal situation, the two halves work together as a seamless ‘engine’ of organizational awareness.

Two tribes

On the ground, though, things are much different.  The two halves of a knowledge process typically operate independently of each other — sometimes with the most fragile and random connections.

If you were an anthropologist (and sometimes it helps), you’d say that each half is inhabited by a native ‘tribe’, each very different from the other.  We’ll call the inhabitants of the Production half the ‘Knowledge’ tribe, and those of the Use half the ‘Power’ tribe.  The two tribes are very different from each other in most respects;  they have substantially different training, careers paths, pay grades, incentives, and organizational perspectives.

They dress differently too, so you can spot them coming down the hall.

The ‘Knowledge people’ (we’ll abbreviate them as ‘Ks’) include IT people, market researchers, competitive analysts, special librarians, research scientists — each of whom in turn has their own sub-specialized formal training and ‘culture’.

The ‘Power people’ (‘Ps’) — executives and decision-makers — tend to have significant experience working in the trenches of the business, which may (or may not) be accompanied by credentials like MBAs and/or other leadership experience (in the military, for example).  Formal training here is less important as a qualification than are experience and accomplishments.

The Knowledge-Power gap

KVC Triangle FNL_RGB topLike boys and girls lined up at a seventh-grade dance, the Ks and the Ps do not naturally mix socially with their counterparts.  They tend to be more comfortable with ‘their own kind’, though there are exceptions — and even some people who cross over from one to the other side during their careers.

In general, though, there is a gap between Ks and Ps — sometimes a large gap.  My colleague and friend Mark Little, former president of SCIP, was explaining to his Board of Directors what market research and competitive intelligence do.  He used the KVC model to illustrate this — but he tore the triangle in half at its middle, to illustrate how far distant the two pieces are.  KVC Triangle FNL_RGB bottomMark claims that in many organizations, it’s more accurately a gulf than a gap.

Intelligence is the conversation

Intelligence sits between the Ks and the Ps and (at best) mediates between them.  Intelligence is the conversation between the two tribes — knowledge users and producers.  This is one of the reasons intelligence is challenging to manage — it represents the interface between these two very different corporate cultures.

In fact, when TKA did research on the ‘fail points’ in the KVC as companies actually used it, the intelligence interface was one of the two most common problem areas.  (The other was at the top of the chain, in defining the Value proposition itself.)

Civil wars

As with many cultural divides, each side of the K-P gap has an innate skepticism of the other.  This must be managed lest it become the source of manifest dysfunction.  On the one hand, Ks tend to be ‘thinkers’ — more intellectual, and often openly disdainful of what sometimes seems to be anti-intellectualism among the Ps.  “They go on gut feel, they shoot from the hip, they don’t care about evidence or intelligence” — you often hear these kinds of critiques.

This is buttressed with folk wisdom like the whispered put-down: “There are three kinds of intelligence clients:  those who don’t read; those who won’t read; and those who can’t read.”

The Ps are often called executives — literally, people who execute, who get things done.  They take pride in their intuitive sense of what’s going on, which typically comes from personal relationships built over an extended time.  One senior sales executives recently told us, “I collect my own intelligence…by getting together on Friday afternoon for beers with my buddies in our distribution channel.”

We know better

It’s nearly impossible to get better, fresher intelligence than this ‘view from the trenches’ if you’re sitting behind a desk reading a computer screen.  The Ps sense this, and that’s why the Ks have a perennially tough sell.  “I just searched the Internet, so now I know more about your business than you do” is not a message welcomed in most executive suites — though it’s the implied working premise of many knowledge disciplines.  And may in fact have much validity to it.

Ps may see the Ks as overly cautious, pessimistic, prone to excessive cogitation and deliberation, not team players — and (let’s face it) just too junior to know what’s really going on.  That’s if the Ks are responsive and professionally competent.

And if by chance they are not, you could add arrogant, out-of-touch, expendable, and more unprintable things to the list of adjectives.

The biases of each side are correct — partly.  The whole process works best when — really only works if — (1) each tribe understands the other and (2) the two actively work together.  Dysfunctional or divisive relationships between Ks and Ps leads to non-optimal outcomes for all.

Less is more

One of the most common mistakes that Ks make in producing intelligence is inappropriate overdelivery.  Their intention is usually good, and the accompanying (usually tacit) meta-conversation goes something like:  I’ve really done my homework. I’m going to give you everything I found that might even remotely be relevant, so that you can then decide what’s most important to solving your problem.

In fact, the words “Give me everything on…are in my experience the most common words introducing Ps’ information requests.  My own research shows that this is usually because Ps don’t know exactly what they are looking for, but are reluctant to admit as much.

When faced with the mountain of data that results, the same meta-conversation in the P/user’s mind goes quite differently. They ‘hear’ the K/producer saying: I can’t discriminate between what’s relevant and important, and what’s not.  Or, worse:  I have made little attempt to understand what your business problem is. Or, even worse:  I have no concept of the value of your time.

In intelligence, less is always more if — and this is crucial — it’s the right stuff.  This keeps the signal-to-noise ratio high.  Once that ratio drops, the credibility of the producer can be damaged, sometime severely.

Knowledge and intelligence:  what’s the difference?

In everyday language, most of us use the terms Knowledge, Intelligence, Information, and even Data somewhat interchangeably.  No less than Sherman Kent, the founder of modern intelligence analysis, begins his seminal 1949 book Strategic Intelligence with the words, “Intelligence is knowledge.”

The KVC model, however, draws clear distinctions among these various aspects or phases of the intelligence process.  Not because we’re semantic nit-pickers (though maybe we are) but because we believe that understanding how each phase works distinctly — and how to make the transformation from each phase to the next — are essential to effectively managing the entire process.

Knowledge is (in KVC-speak) defined as the end result of a process of data collection and analysis within a knowledge worker, but before it’s communicated to a client/decision-maker.  Intelligence is defined as that same knowledge after being communicated to someone with the power (i.e., authority, budgets, etc.) to act upon it.

Knowledge becomes intelligence when — and only when — it’s transmitted to someone who can act upon it to create value.  In this sense,we could say that KNOWLEDGE + POWER = INTELLIGENCE.

knowledge power intel

In researching this post I found that, though often attributed to Bacon, the words “knowledge is power” have not yet been definitively located by any scholar researching his writings (which were mainly in Latin.)  Thomas Hobbes, who served for a time as Bacon’s secretary, did say “The end of knowledge is power…the scope of all speculation is the performing of some action or thing to be done.”

But the words omitted in reducing to the slogan “knowledge is power” are key to Hobbes’ meaning — which seems to be that knowledge is an avenue to power, not its equivalent.  In this sense he is anticipating what Peter Drucker said three and a half centuries later: “The purpose of information is not knowledge.  It is being able to take the right action.”  (Management Challenges for the 21st Century.)

Intelligence is the dialogue between Knowledge and Power. The intelligence process and its practitioners form the bridge across the often-perilous Knowledge-Power gap.  As such they represent the key link in the Knowledge Value Chain. TKA’s KVC diagnostics locate gaps and fail points in your process, and offer options to fix them.

3 Responses

  1. […] a look at Competing in the Knowledge Economy: Observations by Tim Powell (August 12) and see if you agree with what Tim has to […]

  2. G. Dionne says:

    Tim’s perspective about producers and users of knowledge as tribes is naiive. Forget Bacon, Foucault very persuasively explains how knowledge and power work together in Modern society.

    Powell somehow overlooks the fact that Librarians and Knowledge Brokers have always been the MEDIATORS between the two groups of producers and users. WHY do people insist on problematising the role/relationship further. It’s really not that complicated.

    To understand and practice KM, one needs to get out of their head (way too much theory!) and down to earth.

  3. […] and posts give particular attention to the Knowledge Value Chain®. One of these posts – Knowledge is Power – Not! – was recently featured in this space (KM, Knowledge Services, Knowledge Strategy: Tim Powell Puts […]

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