Why Knowledge is NOT Power

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The article below was originally written and published at www.switchandshift.com. It can be found here.


Yes, I said it. Contrary to everything you’ve ever been told, knowledge is not power. The days of information hoarding—of only a few “powerful” people at the top of the outdated organizational pyramid—and holding on to that last bit of data as if nobody else could replicate it, are gone.

Long gone.

Today, knowledge is not power, but sharing knowledge is. If you look at the traditional business hierarchy—the same one adopted from the military years ago—the top of the pyramid represents the C-suite, the founders, or those who have the most influence by way of sheer rank or tenure. But does this make sense? I mean, executives at the top of the pyramid must (theoretically) know as much as possible about the company in order to run it effectively and to make the most informed decisions. But what happens as you traverse downwards through the ranks toward the lower levels of the pyramid?

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Information dissipates. Like a good old fashioned game of Telephone, knowledge gets watered down the further it permeates from the source. As a result, employees at the bottom of the totem pole often have the least business context because their focus is strictly within their own organizational silos, and without information their decision-making power is limited. Marketing lacks the insight that sales has from being “on the ground;” sales doesn’t talk with R&D and therefore can’t answer customer questions with the latest context. Accessibility to information ebbs away the further one moves away from the top so much that those employees at the bottom don’t have the organizational or competitive insight to make accurate and timely decisions within their departments. And that is the problem—the fact that departments, or silos, are structured in such a way as to restrict information exchange.


How the War on Terror Changed the Organizational Paradigm

During my tenure at Naval Special Warfare Development Group, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) faced a completely new enemy organized in a completely new way. Gone were the days of the enemy’s org chart fitting nicely into a PowerPoint slide (see figure 1).

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Figure 1

Instead, the structural makeup of this new enemy more accurately reflected that of a star cluster, or a network (see figure 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2


What JSOC faced was an enemy that could make decisions faster, adapt faster, and effectuate change faster than any other competitor we had ever faced. In all honesty, we were neither prepared nor ready to face such a dynamic opponent because we were still operating in our own organizational silos instead of one holistic unit. Furthermore, we soon learned that the structure under which we worked was totally outdated. At the time, a service member “on the ground” would face a threat. He would then send a request “up” the chain of command to act on that threat, wait for a decision to be made by a leader who had “greater” strategic context, and then wait even LONGER for that decision to be sent back down. Not exactly ideal in a dynamic and constantly changing competitive landscape. And guess what? Business is no different.


What We Learned from the Enemy

The enemy’s decision-making process was simply faster than ours—until we changed. No matter how hard we worked, how fast we moved, or how straight we shot, if there were more obstacles in our decision-making process than the enemy’s then we were going to lose every single time. Back then, in order for a soldier on the ground to act we had to go through a long, drawn-out process of authorization, whereas al Qaeda only needed to make a phone call. Call me crazy, but it’s simple physics. Additionally, any decisions the enemy made were by an individual closest to the problem—the person on the ground who had the greatest context, the most up-to-date information and subsequently, the person best positioned to make that decision.


The Lesson Learned

Employees at the bottom must possess the same information as those at the top. Doing so allows senior leaders to focus on what they should be doing—leading—and keeps their focus on the business rather than on your business.

Knowledge sharing is what empowers people to make accurate and timely decisions because the information is shared across silos. When General (Ret.) Stan McChrystal was head of JSOC, he published his calendar with his information and objectives for all to see and as a result, created a culture of transparency and inclusion amongst his people. When knowledge is openly shared, the metaphorical “left hand” knows what the “right hand” is doing and, as a result, any stovepipes are broken down and a shared awareness with a shared purpose emerges. Doing so allows employees to be proactive instead of reactive and beat the competitor because now every employee shares the same definition of success.

Decision-making power—and therefore executable authority—is based on relationships, because the individual with the most accurate information is typically the one with the most decision-making power. Such power cannot just reside at “the top” if you want to stay relevant in today’s changing landscape. The flow of information today is too fast and too dynamic.

The New Pyramid

In order to act with the size and scope of a mega-company but with the speed and agility of a small team, you need to turn the organizational pyramid on its head.

If you flip the pyramid upside down, a larger group can now share information to a wider audience, and context at the top gets pushed down to the most effective level—not the lowest level, but the most effective—such that each member is now empowered to execute in her function because she understands the direction in which the company is heading—and why.

Figure 3
Figure 3


What this does is allow for decisions to be made as new information emerges because it eliminates the travel time of knowledge transfer. Instead of that soldier having to wait for a decision to be made by a senior leader, he can now make a decision because he already understands the team’s strategy, purpose, and values (and therefore boundaries) within which to operate. By understanding the mission and sharing information, people can now operate autonomously without having to bog down the boss with silly requests.

This was the exact solution JSOC found that enabled it to win in this constantly changing environment. After being restructured from a hierarchy into a network, JSOC improved its ROI from executing 18 missions per month in 2002, to over 300 per month in 2006.

Today’s competitive landscape is constantly morphing, and hoarding knowledge is certainly not the key to success. In order to stay relevant, you and your company must be willing to adapt for purpose constantly, which only happens when you share your knowledge with your people.

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