The (social) economics of gift and burying “knowledge is power” once and for all


“Giving a gift makes you indispensable. Inventing a gift, creating art-that is what the market seeks out, and the givers are the ones who earn our respect and attention.” (Seth Godin,).

As I am continuing to listen to this excellent ‘Linchpin‘ book, at least one whole section of

Linchpin (Seth Godin)

Linchpin (Seth Godin)

the book is worth exploring from an agile KM perspective. Godin talks about the gift economy, or rather the gift and the social economics around it. This is a final opportunity to put to rest the idea of ‘knowledge is power’ (among other reasons for not sharing knowledge) and to focus on the knowledge ecology our world can and should replace it with.

Essentially Godin’s point is that we’ve lost the universal tradition of gifts – in most human societies gift had a place and the person sharing the gifts was the person that earned the respect. The commodity-focused capitalism has replaced gifts with economic transactions – paying for a good – and has turned the tradition of gifts to become a tribute. The person with power became the person getting gifts, not giving them away.

However the social economy we are in is now turning this on its head again and making space for the ‘linchpins’ – the indispensable positive deviants that are following their passion, developing their art (regardless of the reactions expected) and thus making themselves indispensable. And one of the things that linchpins do is to share their gifts again as they connect with people around them. All those behaviours are the key to success.

Every successful organization is built around people. Men and women who don’t merely shuffle money, but interest, give gifts, and connect. (Seth Godin)

The social economics of giving in the knowledge ecology

‘Knowledge is power’ states that there is more advantage in hoarding knowledge for one’s advantage than sharing it freely. And that might be true. For a while… A short while.

In the longer run, however, we thrive as we are connected to a vast network of people.

Knowledge ecology - from the archives of 'share fairs'

Knowledge ecology – from the archives of ‘share fairs’

And that’s where the social economics of giving reveals its true advantages:

1. ‘Selling’ knowledge is a zero sum game.

When someone is hoarding knowledge, no fertile work comes out. And when someone systematically and only charges for sharing their knowledge, that person is merely entering into a transaction. Commoditising knowledge, with all the problems that come with – one of them being that knowledge really isn’t a commodity. But if it is considered a commodity, knowledge becomes desacralised, stripped off of its power which is unique and close to only a few other importants things in life, like love. That power is its social nature.

In any case, when we are selling knowledge there is no transformation, there is no(t much) added value here.

When instead…

2. Sharing knowledge transforms our relationships

When art is created solely to be sold, it’s only a commodity. A key element for the artist is the act of giving the art to someone in the tribe. (Seth Godin)

Give gifts (Credits: Neil Cummings / FlickR)

Give gifts (Credits: Neil Cummings / FlickR)

Indeed, when we share our knowledge, not only do we make available that handy knowledge to others, for them to do something perhaps useless but perhaps useful, or even amazing. In addition, and whatever happens with that knowledge, something else happens: when we share gifts (of knowledge or otherwise) with specific people, we are also developing, changing, transforming our relationships with them. We expand our tribes, we bring people in them. We also reach out to the people in the tribes of our tribe members – and so we are connecting to all the nodes of our global collective brain.

Of course, for this social transformation to happen most completely, there needs to be some sense of appreciation from the person receiving the gift too. That’s where the gift of your attention becomes so precious. And perhaps why your engaging in conversations (because that’s the work) is essential too.

3. Sharing knowledge creates power

One of the final points of Godin is that the person giving the gifts is showing that they have plenty of potential to give more, plenty of creativity, plenty of art to share. They show their uniqueness, and that uniqueness is also power – not that I would encourage you to focus on this. But indeed ‘Knowledge sharing is (caring) power‘ – both collective and individual.

This goes to show that even in a knowledge ego-logy, where we are serving (also) our own interests, but out of the principle of sharing our gifts, we are cultivating the knowledge garden and we are cultivating our connections with each other in that whole ecology.

So what can we do now?

There are many lessons one can take from such a rich book as ‘Linchpin’:

  • Develop your art with passion – in the knowledge world this means developing learning approaches that have failed safely and keep on going higher because you drive them with all of yourself.
  • Stop hoarding knowledge – share it and pay it forward instead, as it’s the best way to get that knowledge to lead to grand work, art crafts, masterpieces!
  • Offer your respect in return: part of the ecology is to cultivate it too by paying respect to the artists around us who are sharing their art as gifts.
  • Trust that people are not so interested in buying products, but as Seth Godin points out, they are interested in “relationships, stories, magic“!
  • Turn to ‘Open’ and ‘Working out loud’
  • Read, listen to or watch Linchpin…

I’m on to seek my next Godin book now… Any recommendation?

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The chemistry of magical facilitation (1) – mind the BOSSY HERALD


I had mentioned that I would sooner or later set my blogging foot again on facilitation island and would seek the island’s treasure trove to trace the original chemistry that makes magical facilitation happen. Well, I guess I’ve just landed on the island and am now on my way to find the trove.
Facilitation magic takes the power of the collective to the next level [Photo credits: mello.luiz/FlickR]

Facilitation magic takes the power of the collective to the next level (Photo credits: mello.luiz/FlickR)

This journey will take four steps:
  1. Mapping the big picture to understand the wide angle and political side of the event you are designing or facilitating – i.e. the subject of this very post;
  2. Tracking the details of that wide angle, to ensure your take on that wide angle and politics is viable and operational;
  3. Zooming in on appropriate facilitation methods to go functional and finally…
  4. Diving in dynamics, at the heart of the workshop, to inject the relational and emotional.

It’s the chemical combination of these four elements that makes your facilitation magical.

Now onto the first part of the event design…
1. The politics and wide angle of magical facilitation – here comes the bossy herald
Whether we like it or not, every event also sets some level of power plays. Someone (possibly a multi-faceted someone) is calling the shots and shaping the agenda. And beyond that politics, there are a few other important ‘wide angle’ elements to take into account. Ignoring this means you might come up with the best workshop design and facilitation but totally miss the point. And make that multi-faceted someone upset. And get participants confused. A total waste… You don’t want to go there. That’s why in this facilitation journey it’s always useful to mind the BOSSY HERALD. Although he’s slightly obnoxious, he reminds you of all the major elements that determine the wide angle of an event. Each letter in the bossy herald stands for a crucial aspect in this wide angle. Let’s inspect this…
The bossy part represents the political side which you cannot afford to neglect:
  • Big picture. Where in the bigger picture does this event fit? Is it a one-off event? Is it integrated with ongoing work? What is the rationale behind it? What drive pushed this event off the orchard of good-ideas-that-have-not-yet-been-used-and-perhaps-never-will? How are you going to tap into the source of inspiration for this event? What will you prepare and expect other people to prepare in this respect?
  • Ownership: Who owns the event? You, the facilitator? Someone else? A group of someone elses? Are they all present around you to discuss the design of the event or do you have to deal with each of them separately (mind the between-hammer-and-anvil scenario)? Do they have an agenda for this event? More importantly, to what extent do your participants own this event? In other words, is there room to co-create the agenda along the way or do you follow a pre-established agenda? How much flexibility is there to shape that agenda along the way?
  • Sharpness: Assuming that you are focusing on an overall theme for the event, how far are you planning to examine the core of the matter and its edges? How much are you hoping to explore your field? Are you hoping to expand the understanding of the matter at hand laterally (getting more people on board, levelling the field of knowledge) or vertically (delving more in depth in the pool of  knowledge)?
  • Spectrum: To what extent does the content of your overall event’s theme constitute your bull’s eye? Are you interested in the content only? Or do you also have a keen eye for the process surrounding the event e.g. do you also want to stimulate teambuilding, strengthen partnerships, raise awareness about the who-is-who in this field etc.?
  • Yearnings: What are the deep expectations that you (and the people owning your event) have for this event? What outcome should it lead to? What products are you hoping to see come out of this? What non-negotiable outputs should be achieved? What other outputs and outcomes would you ideally like or love to see? Should the event lead to specific concrete written outputs (a report, an article, an action plan, a declaration) at all or should it focus on the innovative and creative exploration of your subject, or other intangibles? Is your event aiming at efficiency or effectiveness? Can you picture what would be your ideal outcome / story of change for this event?
Once you’ve taken care of the bossy part, the herald part covers other important wide angle aspects:
  • How-to and heuristics: Take stock of what you have gathered with your bossy analysis. What approach does your experience and common sense dictate you to follow – what is your heuristic for this event, if any? How much do you have to align with the political and wide angle agenda and in contrast how authentic to your own style and aspirations can you afford to be? What tools and approaches seem to make sense in this context?
  • Extent: What about the length of the event? Is it lasting 2 hours, 2 days or 2 weeks? Is it a one-off event or one component or block in a series of mutually reinforcing events? If the latter, how much are you going to cover with this event?
  • Running the event: Who will be facilitating the event? Are there support facilitators? How experienced are all the facilitators involved? The numbers and experience of facilitators has an impact on the level of interactivity that you can design (the more interactive, the more experienced and numerous facilitators you need; some specific methods may require prior experience because they follow a very well codified approach). To what extent can you/they deal with overt or subtle tension? With a large group? With high profile participants?
  • Attendance: What is the profile of your participants? Who is actually coming? Volunteer participants or corporate recruits to a compulsory event? How much do they know each other? How much do they know about the topic? Do they come from the same institutions or different ones? Do they have similar or different professional functions? Is there a hierarchy among them and should it matter in this workshop? Are they all working on the same initiative? Are there tensions among them? Do they speak the same language? How much common culture do they share?
  • Location: Where is the event taking place? Is the venue modular / changeable or is it fixed in a static way (as those conference rooms with translation facilities and a fixed set of desks chained to one another)? Do you have any possibility for group work (break-out rooms, use of outside facilities etc.)? How does the acoustics work? Will you need a microphone?
  • Dynamics: Based on all the above comes a somewhat underrated but extremely crucial consideration: What kind of conversation dynamics do you want to foster? Informing conversations? Reacting on information? Exploring and blue-skying? Questioning or criticising? Co-creating? Arguing or following a ‘yes and’ approach? This is all related to the relatively static or dynamic nature of your event and the need for a seasoned facilitator. Then again, no seasoned facilitator got where they are without trying things out and without failing, so feel free to follow the ‘yes and’ rule (see video below) and throw yourself (or your not so seasoned facilitator) in the event!
For any event, find your way through the pointers of the bossy herald – but don’t overlook him, he’s the maker and breaker of events. All the rest is marbles and bubbles in comparison.

In the next post in this series, we’ll look at the practical implications of the herald in your event.

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The feast of fools of feedback


Carnival season is approaching! A special season where licence and libations precede long fasting.

Related to the carnival, but taking place in December, the feast of fools is another fascinating popular event that marked Western Europe’s history from the sixth to the sixteenth century. The idea of the feast of fools was indeed to bestow “power, dignity and impunity […] to those in a subordinate position.” A mini social revolution that perhaps helped keep the sanity of the society of the time by allowing an extraordinary amount of pressure to come off the system in a structured outburst of freedom.

Feast of fools (Bruegel)

The feast of fools (Bruegel) - why not use that powerful frustration outlet for our modern age?

I’ve always thought that – with careful design and due ‘facilitation’ – it might be a good idea to try such a feast of fools in an organisation. It may not have to follow the medieval model and be reserved exclusively to those who don’t have power, but it could just be organised as a day when everyone might feel free to give feedback to anyone else in any possible way. With or without a mask (as was the case in the middle age)…

Of course this might go terribly wrong. Medieval time celebrations and their Roman ancestor, Saturnalia, also went out of hand occasionally. This is where a sound dash of structure could come in handy; and there are plenty of options to ‘frame’ that feast of fools: a short presentation on how to give feedback? Having all staff wear a disguise, mimicking the age-old mask function? Feedback provided not verbally but in writing or post it notes mysteriously stuck on the walls? Theatrical enactment of the issues that deserve feedback? There are many options…

The idea has not been tried out to my very limited knowledge. And if it was put to test, perhaps even after a few try-outs in a more limited environment, it might prove a powerful cathartic learning exercise that would help a) feel better indeed about letting go of some deep thoughts, b) revealing unexplored, below-the-table issues that deserve improvement, c) reinforcing a culture of feedback and d) offer another opportunity for creative thinking…

As I’m starting this new year of blogging, perhaps it’s also your chance to test this idea in practice on this blog by freely providing any feedback, however critical, about this blog and what I do with it between now and this Friday?

Now, that was a shoot… hopefully not just a ‘shoot me’.

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