Knowledge Management and the Ku Klux Klan

I am currently reading the excellent Freakonomics - a sideways look at life by Steven Levitt, one of the brightest economists in America.

In it he tells the story of Stetson Kennedy who infiltrated the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan and significantly damaged it by getting it's secret rituals and passwords incorporated into a national radio programme about Superman and his fight against various evil groups. By getting these closely guarded secrets into the hands of millions of kids in America who then incorporated them into their games and stories he devalued them to the point of absurdity and in doing so severely weakened the Klan and prevented a resurgence in its influence after the Second World War.

Information has power and access to information has never been easier than it is now. As Levitt says: Had the internet been around when Kennedy infiltrated the Klan, he probably would have rushed home after each meeting and blogged his brains out.

It occurred to me that this is what happens when you implement social computing in business. Gate-keeping power becomes harder to sustain when everyone is their own gate-keeper. Power that comes from being in the know gets dissipated when everyone knows the facts and the ability to manipulate relationships to sustain the interests of one group at the expense of others becomes non-trivial.

As Levitt says: It is common for one party to a transaction to have better information than another party. In the parlance of economists, such a case is known as informational asymmetry. We accept as a verity of capitalism that someone (usually an expert) knows more than someone else (usually a consumer). But information asymmetries have been mortally wounded by the internet.

Try replacing "expert" with "manager" and "customer" with "staff" in the above statement.

Making information freely available does all sorts of things to power and influence in any environment and as a Supreme Court Justice quoted by Levitt says Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants. If you feel uncomfortable about this or worry that others in your organisation would feel threatened by it I suggest that you think long and hard about why.