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The Curse of Knowledge In this thought piece, part of a series exploring the barriers

The Curse of Knowledge

In this thought piece, part of a series exploring the barriers to collaborative innovation, Grant Kearney, founding CEO of the InnovationXchange (IXC International Limited), argues for a new definition of innovation itself and looks at how the ‘Curse of Knowledge’ restricts our capacity to innovate and thus drive national productivity and growth. He argues our best defence against the curse of knowledge must come through national leadership, education, and connectivity.

We all suffer from the curse of knowledge although most of us don’t know it.

Like many afflictions the curse of knowledge can manifest itself in a variety of forms and is one of the most insidious and challenging of all barriers to our capacity to collaborate and innovate.

When we know something it is difficult for us to imagine not knowing it or to understand why others also don’t know it. As a result we often find it hard to communicate and collaborate effectively with others. Equally, it is often difficult for us accept that there are things that we think we know that in fact we don’t know.

The unstoppable emergence of the knowledge economy is driven by the speed with which the three core ingredients of economic growth can now move around the globe. Today skills, capital and knowledge can be shuffled from one country or market to another with lightening-like speed. We only have to witness the fallout of the global financial crisis, the emergence of the BRIC economies and convergence of areas such as ICT and transport or health and food to begin to realise the implications for us all.

It was only a few years ago that we were being urged to ‘innovate or die’ but the global marketplace has changed so much so quickly that to survive in today’s environment we must have the ability to collaborate successfully across organisations, sectors and borders. Any individual, company or economy that believes it can do it all by themselves is doomed for natural extinction. There is a need for speed and a sense of urgency for Australia to build an open, productive, sustainable and competitive economy through developing our capacity to innovate collaboratively. In the words of Jeffrey Immelt, Chairman and CEO of GE, “we are all just a moment away from commodity hell”.

I believe the emergence of this new environment for innovation (where constant reinvention and

Almost every

collaboration is a simple imperative) demands a new definition of innovation itself.

regard as an ‘industrial or manufacturing age’ definition. It is usually described as “doing something

regard as an ‘industrial or manufacturing age’ definition. It is usually described as “doing something new or different to add economic or social value”.

I commend to you a new definition of innovation for these new times of the knowledge economy.

Innovation is the novel application of shared knowledge to add economic or social value.

The point is that while innovation is action based delivering practical economic or social value it is fundamentally collaborative. It generally requires shared knowledge and/or capabilities, most likely to be multidisciplinary and often sourced externally. Individually we are capable of being creative and inventive but it is through collaboration that we innovate.

In striving to build an open, productive and competitive economy in the context of the emergence of the global knowledge economy and our response to it as a nation we must be alert to the curse of knowledge and the dangers it presents. It would seem to me that there are broadly two extremes of those of us afflicted with the curse: those who are ‘blissfully ignorant’ and those who ‘know it all’, and then of course there are those in between.

While ignorance may be bliss to most of us from time to time, there is no doubt it is also a major barrier to our capacity to collaborate and innovate. Locking ourselves away in silos and ignoring the rest of the world around us is one sure fire way to catch the curse of knowledge; we have all come across companies and other organisations that are so insulated from the rest of the world that they are almost dysfunctional within the context of the modern knowledge economy.

These ‘blissfully ignorant’ organisations and their staff are simply incapable of capturing external opportunities through collaboration. They are unable to look outside of their current sphere, to see opportunities that may exist across sectors and boundaries. A small university spin-out who IXC has worked with was focussed on providing their enzyme technology to the mining sector. IXC discovered a multinational food company seeking an enzyme solution for a product and introduced the two organisations. This relationship bought the spin-out a new source of revenue and provided the food company with a solution that did not jeopardise their IP.

No particular type of organisation or individual is immune to the blissfully ignorant strain of the curse of knowledge. It can be found strangling the growth potential of major multi-nationals along with well known Australian companies and can be particularly contagious within public sector organisations; third sector groups and charities are not immune and of course there is more than one entrepreneurial type who has ‘blissfully’ re-invented the wheel.

Aware of these risks the managing director of a leading Australian manufacturer commissioned IXC to carry out a three month review and analysis of external policies, market trends and emerging technologies that could affect their future. With this type of leadership it is no wonder the company is highly profitable and much loved by the markets.

At the other end of the scale is the ‘ know it all ’. We

At the other end of the scale is the ‘know it all’. We think we know so much about the subject at hand that it is almost impossible for us to understand that others don’t share this knowledge. We assume that because something is so obvious to us it is inconceivable that others don’t share the same knowledge. It is a no brainer to me and “you just don’t get it!” In many ways this is an especially destructive and particularly wasteful barrier to collaborative innovation.

One of most common areas where the know it all form of the curse of knowledge is to be found is amongst the entrepreneur, start up and SME communities. Experience the tragedy often described as ‘founders syndrome’ where a completely viable new enterprise with much commercial or social promise, is torn apart often with great personal and financial consequences for the collaborators involved because the inventor, creator or founder simply cannot accept that others can’t see things the way they do. It can sometimes be a case of my way or the high way.

Another all too common waste is all the great ideas that never make it to social or commercial application because the “ideators” think that the idea in itself is so important and obvious that others will get it eventually. Here the curse of knowledge can be a major barrier to collaboration between research and academia and industry.

Then there are know it all organisations and individuals that are simply conceited about the depth or breadth of their knowledge and capabilities and believe that they already know or have access to all the knowledge they need to innovate. This group has no idea ‘that they don’t know what they don’t know’ tend to see collaboration as being something to be done on their terms only.

This attitude can often be found in larger companies with strong research and development budgets and in well funded public research institutes. Not only do they miss out on valuable collaborative opportunities for new business growth but they run the very real risk of being blindsided by what they don’t know. To avoid this predicament, a large international manufacturer approached IXC to find a technical solution to a problem with a new product they couldn’t solve themselves. IXC introduced them to an Australian university whose research could be applied to the problem. This willingness to look outside of their company saved them valuable product and market development time.

To protect ourselves as a nation from the curse of knowledge we must commitment ourselves to three equally important courses of action. We must improve the capacity of our business managers to collaborate; we must educate our workforce from the days of early schooling on the important dimensions of human relations, including respect for the knowledge and ideas of others and the value of sharing knowledge with each other; and we must build a national collaborative platform that integrates the use of both people and technology for connectivity.

There is a need and an opportunity for our policy makers and education leaders to encourage the development of management courses and training programs for business men and women that focus on collaborative innovation. Organisations, such as the Society for Knowledge Economics, the

Australian Business Foundation, Innovation & Business Skills Australia and others, are making promising progress in

Australian Business Foundation, Innovation & Business Skills Australia and others, are making promising progress in this direction and I have long promoted the need for an Australian Institute for Collaboration.

Traditionally young people have not been formally taught the importance of human relations as part of preparing for work life. Yes, we were all encouraged by our parents and teachers to share our lollies, to play nicely and to respect others but this has generally been within a societal context and not as a formal part of preparing people for the workplace. When it comes to thinking about work and careers young people are still more likely to be encouraged to be competitive rather than collaborative.

There is a compelling need to develop school based pre-university courses in human relations that prepare our workforce for a world where collaboration is based on the application of shared knowledge. There should be no reason why young people can’t study the impact of human relations on their potential for a successful career whilst also studying economics.

It is equally important that as a nation we build the internal and external connectivity that is needed for businesses and the workforce to be competitive. This requires more than simply leveraging or connecting the myriad of research, education, industry support and innovation programs that already exist or the creation of some new web portal or data base.

In order to build a national collaborative platform to drive both our productivity and our international competitiveness we need to combine the power of technology and people with new processes and systems for ‘on demand’ access to knowledge and capabilities. This will require new thinking and cultural change on the part of government, research and business as we seek out how to quickly and safely access, move and share knowledge across traditional legal, organisational and national barriers.