Sounds of silence

The new economy is driven by ideas, which is why people are becoming rather cagey about sharing them
March 20, 2000

Twenty people-specialists, experts, thinkers-sit around a seminar table. They might be discussing education, or the US stock market. Although people are speaking, no one is saying anything.

At least half of the participants have an original idea at the front of their mind. But they do not share it because it is too valuable. They are afraid that one of the others will steal the idea and use it, publish or sell it before they do. Their intellectual property is at risk. So received wisdoms are recycled.

Images of the new economy are of speed, complexity, hubbub. You get the sense that it will be a noisy place. In fact, such is the fear of being intellectually gazumped that the new economy may echo to the sound of silence.

There has always been some caution about sharing ideas in a profession like journalism. But this caution seems to be spreading, especially into the world of policy-into think-tanks and government departments. On an individual level, hoarding and hiding make good sense. But collectively it impoverishes conversation-potentially to the detriment of good policymaking.

This new intellectual coyness highlights the peculiar quality of information and ideas in a market economy. The essential problem is this: you cannot know the value of a piece of information until you know what the information is, and you cannot then give it back. You cannot feel the quality of an idea before deciding whether to buy it or not. This means that ideas make bad commodities. Pricing, in the usual economic sense, is impossible because the value of the product is not physically captured-at least, not immediately.

This is why intellectual property lawyers are licking their lips, and why one academic has just taken out the first-ever patent on an idea. But legal and contractual approaches to the problem are of limited use. Many of the best ideas come out of a conversation between at least two people. Who, then, do they belong to? And the danger of legally-based approaches is that they will make us more cautious, not less.

On the face of it, the argument that we are becoming intellectual scrooges flies in the face of current trends. Isn't the internet democratising knowledge? And what about the free software at the heart of cyberspace? Far from living in monastic silence, aren't we being bombarded with ideas and information?

Well, yes. But most of the information we receive is of limited value. How many people who have a truly innovative idea will broadcast it on the web? Some, but not many. With so much guff all over the place, the value of an original idea is worth guarding.

All this means that intellectual generosity is becoming rarer and much more precious. It also elevates the role of trust. Suppose that Helen Wilkinson, writer on family issues and e-commerce, gives me an idea. If I pass that idea on, either through conversation or in print, it is critical that I "tag" the idea as hers, rather than succumbing to the temptation to pass it off as my own. (As it happens, some of the ideas in this article were born of a conversation with Helen-and a subsequent one with John Knell from the Industrial Society.)

Tagging means that Helen continues to reap the rewards of her intellectual labour. And tagging means that she will be willing to share other ideas in the future, that our conversations will be free of the fear of theft. In short, she will trust me, and vice versa. Trust becomes critical to the free flow of information.

There are issues for employers here, too. When someone's ability to add value rests on their ability to come up with ideas, how do you ensure they are working as hard for you as they should be? How do you know they are not storing up the best stuff for the on-line consulting firm they run from home?

In most cases, the desire of workers to be seen to be talented, to win promotion and greater financial reward, is sufficient incentive. But as brighter, younger people tire of corporate hierarchies and become less willing to wait for their reward, the danger of staff leaving their brains at home can only grow. Managers have to become taggers, too-ensuring that a breakthrough idea or killer phrase generated by one of their staff is credited properly to them. This means losing the fear that promoting the idea of your subordinates will threaten your position, which is not always easy.

What is true at an individual level applies to institutions, too. Some organisations share ideas confidently while others are parsimonious. In government, the policy unit is pretty porous, exchanging and sharing ideas across Whitehall. Gordon Brown's team, by contrast, are said to be more insular.

The Industrial Society (which I have just joined from the Observer) is re-engineering itself as a thinking organisation. The society has a reservoir of accumulated knowledge on a range of issues. We want the organisation to be known for its intellectual generosity. We will throw out ideas, collect ideas, pass on "tagged" ideas, without fear or favour. We promise always to tag ideas to the person from whom it came. So how about it? As John Knell puts it: do you dare to share?