The Knowledge Economy

“What do you do?” I asked someone I’d just met.

“We’re in the knowledge business,” she said. “My company adds knowledge to knowledge.”

We’ve all asked the ‘what do you do’ question a thousand times. And we’ve heard every reply imaginable. But I’d never heard one as intriguing as ‘adding knowledge to knowledge.’ I couldn’t help but ask her to explain.

…And I couldn’t help thinking about it afterwards either. Because we’re all in the knowledge business now.

When I started in business – not that many years ago despite what my sons think – people had stock: they had inventories. The auditors would turn up and spend a week stocktaking. Now, I look round the offices of so many of the TAB York members and all I see are the serried ranks of Apple Macs. Yes, there are honourable exceptions, but they’re becoming increasingly rare: those of us writing blogs may soon need to find a replacement for the apocryphal widget maker.

So everything’s fine: we’re all knowledge workers and whether we vote to Remain or to Leave (see next week…) then the future for our businesses is rosy.

Perhaps. I came across this article in the Harvard Business Review recently: it certainly bears out what I see – and what various TAB York members tell me. A bank of Macs is not necessarily the answer to all your problems: in fact the modern office throws up almost as many challenges as its Rolodex and Kalamazoo counterpart…


There’s a great line in the HBR article: I think it’s safe to say that at least some of the work of your company requires sustained focus of longer than two minutes.


Absolutely: and yet we seem to go out of our way to encourage interruptions to our work. An e-mail flashes up: there’s an alert on your phone: your computer starts cheering – someone’s scored a goal in the Euros. (Yes, yes, I plead guilty to the last one.)

But if the knowledge economy demands anything, it demands concentration. All the studies show that your work takes longer if you’re constantly interrupted, and that you produce lower quality work. There are plenty of techniques for keeping you focused – from the Pomodoro upwards – but they all depend on you turning off interruptions. (And recognising that it really doesn’t matter if Croatia take the lead against the Czech Republic…)

The Design of the Office

Hand in hand with the banks of Macs have come open plan offices. As Maura Thomas describes in the HBR, they’re a double-edged sword. Yes, open plan offices bring increased collaboration, sharing of ideas and a more social working environment. But they also bring distractions, noise and a loss of privacy.

I’m in two minds on this one: I can see the economic argument in favour of open plan offices – but sometimes adding knowledge to knowledge needs silence, focus and being unsocial. In my experience those offices that work best are the ones combining the best of both: where there’s a shared purpose, where you can collaborate – but where can also disappear when that report simply has to be finished by 5pm.

Absent Friends

As I wrote last week, my eldest son has just turned 14. With 8 or 9 years to go until Dan enters the workplace, I wonder if he’ll ever work in a traditional office? It’s much more likely that he’ll spend a large amount of his time working remotely – keeping in touch with colleagues via whatever’s replaced e-mail, WhatsApp and Basecamp by 2025.

But we don’t have to wait until 2025: remote working is a trend that’s already well established. I do wonder, though, if the vast majority of businesses are getting the most out of the team members that aren’t in the office. If it’s not ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ all too often it’s ‘out of sight, out of the loop.’ Success comes from keeping everyone involved and taking all your team on the journey – wherever they are.

…And with that, my thoughts turn back to the Brexit debate. By the time you read next week’s post we’ll have voted. The polls will be closed and if we don’t know the result, we’ll have a very good idea. But next week I’m going to ask a simple question. Leave or Remain: will it make any difference to your business?

The Next Member of Your Team: A Biologist or a Physicist?

World Markets Tumble on China Fears.

BT Sport wins Ashes TV rights.

CBI predicts steady growth next year.

The usual range of business headlines on the BBC – and then, buried away at the bottom – is a series of video clips called ‘CEO Secrets.’ The first one I clicked on was James Dyson. His advice is simple:

Employ good engineers and scientists. Trust them and back them.

Well, yes. That’s all very well for James Dyson. He’s a scientist himself. He understands manufacturing, makes clever hoovers and fans that cost three hundred quid instead of £19.99. He needs engineers and scientists.

We’re web designers, we’re a boutique hotel, we’re a professional practice. What do we need with a scientist? Besides, they wear baggy jumpers with coffee stains on them, don’t they? We’re cool, we’re sleek, we’re minimalist…

Trust me: I’ll explain.

There have been three themes that have run through this blog since it started in the early summer of 2010. They’ve never varied, and they’re even more relevant today than they ever were.

Firstly, it’s all about balance. Your work is there to serve your life, not the other way round. However important your business, it’ll never be as important as the people you love.

Secondly, the African proverb. ‘If you want go fast go alone; if you want to go far go together.’ Everything I do through TAB and everything I write on the blog is aimed simply at that – helping you go as far as you want on your business journey.

And thirdly, change. Business was changing rapidly back in 2010: today the pace of change is simply dizzying. Instagram was launched four months after I started the blog. By April 2012 it was worth a billion dollars and as of December last year it had 300m users.

…Which brings us neatly back to scientists.

Because not only is business changing, the way we all need to think about business is changing.

‘If you always do what you’ve always done then you’ll always get what you’ve always got’ has held true for generations. But now ‘if you always do what you’ve always done’ you’ll very shortly be filed alongside the makers of gaslights.

Traditionally, we’ve seen business as a machine. Put the right number of prospects, calls, closing appointments in at the top and the result you want will drop out at the bottom. But as Tim Brown, Chief Executive of Design Agency IDEO, said in a BBC interview seeing business as a machine isn’t going to work in the future:

The way we think about business and society will be much more based on biological metaphors, on the way ecosystems work, because they’re much more complex and much more adaptive.

That’s why IDEO – along with a lot of other businesses – is increasingly hiring scientists for non-scientific roles. They think differently, and they bring different thought processes to the business. George Barrett of Cardinal Health echoed this:

You sometimes have to give voice to that heretic who drives everybody crazy but at least is stirring up enough new thought.

With the world changing so rapidly there’s a real danger that if you’re nose-to-the-grindstone, doing-what-you’ve-always-done, you’ll look up one day and find the world has changed around you – and that your business model is no longer valid.

With more and more businesses being based on knowledge and adapting that knowledge, the traditional advice to hire people smarter than you is more relevant that ever – but now it needs supplementing. You also need to hire people who think differently to you: who come from a different background and have a different way of looking at the world. You need to hire the heretics who’ll make sure you don’t miss new opportunities by simply doing what you’ve always done.

We’ve always known that the entrepreneur needs to work on his business as well as in his business. Today you need to your whole team to be working on your business – and thinking differently is a big step in the right direction.

Ignorance is a Choice

I don’t frequent football fans’ forums very much – as a Newcastle supporter it’s not a sensible way to spend Saturday evening. But you know how it is, sometimes you can’t resist… And what did I find after we snatched a draw from the jaws of victory against Crystal Palace? An important business lesson for us all.

If you’re not a regular visitor to football chat rooms – and let me congratulate you on that particular life choice – I should tell you that all the fans have fictitious names and ‘signatures.’ Mostly these signatures question the manager’s competence or the owner’s sanity, but one of them ran much deeper than that. “Right now,” it read, “Ignorance is a choice.”

And for every reader of this blog, that’s true.

Let’s do a simple test. How far is it from Vladivostok to Delhi? Starts stop watch on iPhone…

It’s 5,088km – and it took me 18.53 seconds to find that out, including the time it took me to type the query.

Maybe something more philosophical? Why is it wrong to steal? In 0.31 seconds Google offers me 43m results.

So I’m inclined to agree with my pal on the forum. Ignorance is a choice. But sadly from a business point of view, it’s a choice that a lot of us make. The mass of men not only live lives of quiet desperation: all too often they live lives of quiet complacency as well. And if you’re running a business in this rapidly changing world, that’s dangerous.

Let me ask you two questions:

  • When did you last challenge yourself intellectually?
  • When did you last feel out of your depth in a discussion, at a conference or in a meeting?

It’s human nature: we all like to feel comfortable: we all like to feel in control – but very often we’re only learning when we’re slightly out of our depth.

One of the best business tips I’ve read recently is to take yourself off to a conference or a meeting that’s well outside your comfort zone. Maybe it’s programming or SEO or mobile apps: you’ll be surprised at a) how much of it is relevant to your business and b) how much you learn.

I find as I get older that I like learning more and more: it’s one of the bonuses I never expected from TAB. I know far more about management techniques, different leadership styles and – above all – different ways of coping with the trials, tribulations and joys that running your own business brings.

One thing we can be sure of: the world will not stand still and the pace of technological change will continue to increase. If you don’t carry on learning you’re going to be left behind. Ignorance is a choice and unfortunately it’s going to be a choice that will put your business at risk.

One of the great strengths of TAB is that it allows you to go into areas where you’re not comfortable; where you don’t know everything. I’m constantly amazed at the collective wisdom round a Board table and I’m constantly gratified by the discussions: it’s fantastic to hear successful people say, ‘All I know about this is that I don’t know. Can someone help me?’

It’s a characteristic of good leaders that they’re always willing to learn: rest assured that if you’re going to run a successful business over the next ten years a willingness to learn and to go on learning will be absolutely crucial.

To paraphrase the famous Robert Kennedy quote, successful leaders won’t be the people that see things as they are and ask ‘why?’ They’ll be the ones who see things as they could be and ask ‘why not?’