Do Your Knowledge Workers Really Want to Be "Free"?

Knowledge WorkerInformation may "want to be free," as the saying goes, but information workers want to stay employed, and that costs money. So, how do businesses deal with these tensions in today’s workplace?

Such tensions are growing, especially in any organization related to media or digitized (or "digitizable") intellectual property. Songs, movies, books, photos, software and other works may be expensive to produce but can be easily copied and given away "for free" or stolen. And this can make compensating, managing and retaining the people who do this work a growing challenge.

The maxim "information wants to be free" has been attributed to Stewart Brand, the Silicon Valley futurist, who reportedly said it in 1984 (Brand, 2009). Now, 25 years later, Chris Anderson has applied this tenet in his new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Anderson asserts, "In the digital realm you can try to keep Free at bay with laws and locks, but eventually the force of economic gravity will win."

But the force of economic gravity can put stress on knowledge companies and their employees. Last week, for example, news broke that McGraw-Hill is considering selling BusinessWeek. BusinessWeek president Keith Fox wrote in a memo, "We all know that the media industry is facing unprecedented challenges. The growth of digital innovation has created new entrants, new challenges and entirely new business models for media companies. The move of readers and advertisers online, coupled with the impact of the recession on print advertising, has created additional urgency on the need for change" (Fine, 2009).

Anderson would likely assert that such publications "need to accept that content is never again going to be worth what they want it to be worth and reinvent their business" (Gladwell, 2009). That sounds good in theory, but in practice such events have real workforce implications.

When the news came out about BusinessWeek, for example, BW journalist Stephen Baker noted on the Twitter micro-blog site, "It's a bit distracting for us." No doubt the same is true for many knowledge workers today.

Such economic dislocations and stresses are some of the reasons that information won’t get "free" without a fight. In fact, the Financial Times editor, Lionel Barber, recently predicted that "almost all" news organizations will be charging for online content within a year. Rupert Murdoch said in May that he expected his News Corporation newspaper websites to start charging for access within a year. The News Corp. chairman and chief executive said free newspaper websites were a "flawed" business model (Plunkett, 2009).

The issue goes well beyond newspapers and magazines. It goes to the heart of knowledge work itself. Because knowledge can often be digitized, it can be incredibly slippery and portable. Some types of knowledge can be gleaned from the Internet, gathered via algorithms, or easily stolen. And knowledge work can often be shipped overseas or, in some cases, even automated.

Ironically, in an effort to improve productivity or reduce the costs associated with knowledge work, organizations may even view the "free" information produced by other knowledge workers as a substitute for the value of their own workers. Rather than paying for a new report on a topic of interest, for example, a company may just go online and find a free report that gives the company most of what it needs. Or, rather than paying for software, the firm may find the best shareware or freeware option available. Knowledge workers can feel very threatened by these options. It’s not just that such workers could be replaced by someone halfway across the world for a tenth of the price; it’s that someone may be willing to do the work for "free."

This is not to say that knowledge workers have no value in today’s organizations. Indeed, even though they’re susceptible to the "information is free" trend, they’re often the bedrock of a company. Anne M. Mulcahy, chairman and former CEO at Xerox, noted, "In every enterprise, there are workers who are thinking up better ways to capture, manage and deliver information and knowledge. These knowledge workers hold the key to growth and productivity in today’s information-driven business world" (Spira, 2005).

But such observations don’t negate the difficulties that knowledge workers and their managers face in today’s turbulent marketplace. To survive and thrive, such employees have to acknowledge and even leverage today’s technologies. They can get answers to research questions, for example, by querying their readers or other experts via social networks, or they can outsource or automate administrative tasks, or they can harness automation to handle some of their work. For instance, Discover magazine recently noted that "researchers in physics, biology, and archaeology are increasingly enlisting artificial intelligence (AI) to perform analytical tasks traditionally left to humans..." (Angelle, 2009).

Managers must be able to help their employees understand the techniques and technologies for boosting productivity. But to really aid them, managers will often need to build strong relationships, getting to know their employees' issues and serving as coaches. Managers of knowledge workers need to understand what motivates their employees, create new challenges to stretch them and provide the support and tools to be successful.

In the meantime, executives must review their strategic and business models to see how "free" will change things. In Anderson’s book, he gives multiple examples of how organizations have used free products to create bigger markets for the high-value products for which they’re charging. To make this work, organizations need to understand the value proposition of their products and services. They may also need to market their products and services more succinctly to help consumers understand the value added to transform information into knowledge.

This leads us to the rest of Stewart Brand’s original quote. He said, "Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine - too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away" (Brand, 1987, p. 202).

He had it right. The tension has not gone away, only become more apparent. It's business’s job to grapple with such dilemmas. And it’s managers' job to ensure that they know how to get the most out of their most knowledgeable employees.

Documents used in the preparation of this TrendWatcher include the following: