Why Knowledge is Not Power


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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 The days of information hoarding—of only a few “powerful” people at the top of the outdated organizational pyramid—and holding on to that last bit of data as if nobody else could replicate it, are gone.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? 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.

Today, knowledge is not power, but sharing knowledge is.

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 fitting nicely into a PowerPoint slide flow chart with one bad guy connected to another, to another.  Instead, the structural makeup of this new enemy more accurately reflected that of a star cluster, or a network – one bad guy is associated with 10 other bad guys who are each associated with 10 other bad guys etc.

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. 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.

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

Knowledge sharing is what empowers people to make accurate and timely decisions because the information is shared across silos. 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.

In order to stay relevant, you and your company must be willing to adapt for purpose

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What this does is allow for decisions to be made as new information emerges because it eliminates the travel time of knowledge transfer. An employee can now make a better decision more quickly 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.

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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Image credit- cifotart / 123RF Stock Photo

Jeff served as a Navy SEAL for 13 years across 8 combat deployments—a feat second only to his wife’s for putting up with him. He now works as a leadership and business consultant for the McChrystal Group, whose mission is to enable optimal performance by unlocking the latent talent within organizations. He also sits on the board of the SEAL Future Fund, a non-profit whose purpose is to help active duty and former SEALs with both educational and job assistance. You can find Jeff at one of his other online homes: www.jeff-boss.com or www.entrepreneur.com/author/jeff-boss.

  • http://www.mills-scofield.com/ Deb Mills-Scofield

    Indeed — this is what John Hagel & John Seely Brown call knowledge flows over knowledge stocks…. the power of hoarding is over..

  • http://www.bensimonton.com/ Ben Simonton

    Thanks for proving that knowledge is power.

    You showed clearly that without knowledge, those facing the problems are powerless to respond. You also showed that the top normally knows less than 10% of all problems so they are powerless to respond. By the time the top can learn of a problem, it is too late to respond correctly.

    What you have actually proven is that the command and control approach to managing people, the belief that top leaders know best, cannot succeed in responding to problems. Well done.

    Besides that, command and control demotivates and disengages the workforce. Inverting the pyramid is the fix.

    Best regards, Ben
    http://www.bensimonton.com

  • Rob

    I’m delighted to read about the practical application of such large-scale models. And that’s not all! The “top-down-bottom-up” configuration still possesses major bottlenecks and organizational flaws. By comparison, the scalable, networked model I proposed in 2008 allows for complete flexibility and “in-situation” decision making to construct, analyze, and manage contexts as they develop. Such a model offers a quantum leap towards real-time, dynamic, critical decision making. If such a model were automated, it could in theory mutate, age and de-abstract knowledge views till the computer runs out of resources, or till the cows come home again, and again, and again. For this particular application, the model would have the potential to place the critical decision maker right in the enemy mind, whether such a mind was networked, or not. My contention would remain that; although knowledge is power, it depends on which knowledge one refers to.

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  • http://www.hdcarity.com Kim DeMotte

    Jeff,

    You appear to equate “information” with “knowledge”. My experience is that knowledge is often information modified by one’s personal prejudices and agendas. While I can totally agree with your assessment sharing that information (unfiltered, unjudged data) is beneficial to mission, what happens when your knowledge (your interpretation of that data) differs from mine when you share? It doesn’t match my interpretation. You might be my superior, but I’m not buying your interpretation…and may not accept your knowledge completely. And we’re back in the “telephone” game. Until we both peel off our judgement and interpretation and explore some mutual doubt and ingest each other’s data and mutually create our shared knowledge, we’re still fighting a clarity problem, no?

    Thanks for the post….been touting your title for years!

  • Jeff

    Thanks Ben, glad you liked it.

  • http://www.bensimonton.com/ Ben Simonton

    Jeff, – I did like it. I did not agree with your conclusion that knowledge is not power. That said, I loved your relating what occurred within the Special Forces since it provides a very clear rationale for moving away from the command and control approach to managing people to what I call autonomy and support. Having been career Navy with over 20 years on surface ships, I understand the military reasonably well.

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