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Sorting truth from bluster

This article appears in the issue April 2003 [Volume 12, Issue 4]

Not only does Tom Stewart look like an English professor, I've heard him casually discuss the difference between the Old English of "Beowulf" and the Middle English of "The Canterbury Tales." The author of "Intellectual Capital," and now the editor in chief of the Harvard Business Review, Stewart's no flaky hippy preaching to business that "All They Need Is Love."

So, it was more than a little refreshing to hear him proclaim to 150 heads of major U.S. associations that although the Internet bubble burst, the Net is transforming business. Stewart pointed to lasting and deep Net effects: (1) Everything is faster. (2) Transactions (B2B and B2C) are being done electronically, lowering costs by significant percentages. (3) The customer is in charge. (4) Organizations are becoming so "loosely coupled" that it's hard to tell where they end and their suppliers and customers begin.

Not surprisingly since Stewart is the author of one of the seminal books for knowledge managers, all four of these points become clearer and more important once you accept his starting point: Because the real value of a business is in what it knows, much of a business' work consists of developing and sharing knowledge. This knowledge-centric view makes the importance of the Internet clearer than ever.

It also, oddly, helps explain why knowledge was overvalued to begin with. Here's why.

Stewart's last two points strike me as crucial and closely related: Customers are in charge because businesses are becoming loosely coupled--or, as I prefer to put it, businesses are becoming "hyperlinked organizations." Businesses used to keep themselves distinct and safe and secure by selectively releasing information: If you wanted to know anything about a product, you had only one good source to go to. Now, I can learn more about a product and a business in five minutes on the Web than I could in weeks, and the best information comes from other customers.

But, as businesses have lost control of the information about their products, the quality of information has necessarily gone down. Anyone with an Internet connection and a big mouth can proclaim half-truths and outright lies in a confident tone of voice.

So, the knowledge that KM systems were invented to safeguard information that's been checked out, cleansed and presented with its hair combed is being challenged by scurrilous mobs chanting half-truths.

Those chants are the sound of the market speaking. Loud and clear. Imagine you could instantly shut down every site where questionable information about companies and products is bruited about, leaving only gated communities of purebred knowledge. Do you really think you'd be improving the Internet? If so, just about everyone else on the Internet disagrees with you. We are delighted to have places where we can talk about products even if we're not authorized to do so. We discover ways to sort the lies from the truth, the bluster from the honest expressions. Judging by our numbers, we apparently overwhelmingly believe that we're getting more useful knowledge from one another than we're getting from the corporate sites.

Now, in a hyperlinked, loosely coupled business environment, why imagine that what the mob outside the walls wants is any different from what the mob inside the walls want? With the walls down, we're all one mob now


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