Scarcity versus abundance in knowledge management

If the thought of people stealing your ideas is what’s stopping you from thinking out loud on a blog, you’re not alone. It’s a valid fear. If you’re afraid of your ideas being stolen, your mindset is probably that of knowledge scarcity – that you should hoard knowledge because that’s what gives you power. That makes sense to a lot of people.

Another mindset is that of knowledge abundance. There are plenty of ideas to go around, and sharing knowledge gives you power. That makes sense to a lot of people, too. Here’s a quote from someone who got it a long time ago:

Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.

Howard Aiken, computer scientist, 1900-1973

I like talking about my ideas and work-in-progress, and I do it as much as the confidentiality rules and IP guidelines of my employer allows me to do. I think there are tremendous advantages in following a knowledge abundance mindset. I may have wailed about not having a thesis topic (because other people were doing much cooler stuff) or not being able to write a book (because wonderful open source maintainers were merging my suggested features into their code), but I consider that a net win. And then I move on to coming up with the next idea, and the next, and the next.

If you talk about your ideas, you get practice in talking about your ideas: communicating the key points, the benefits, the risks, the challenges and opportunities. You get questions that can help you refine your ideas. You get all these opportunities to make your ideas better. You get to meet a wide range of people who might be able to help you make your idea happen. You grow your network. You build your reputation. And, of course, you might make things work.

I love it when people steal my ideas. Sometimes one of my ideas is picked up by someone else and they do cool stuff with it. Sometimes someone else comes up with the same idea and makes it happen. FANTASTIC! =) I get the validation that the idea is great AND the benefit of being able to use the new product or service without doing any of the hard work. =D I love it when this happens. I hope people steal more of my ideas.

Yes, there are unscrupulous people out there who may steal your idea and then go after you for having it. But there are far more awesome people out there who will take your idea and help you build on it. So it’s really up to you… You can go the lonely inventor route, working on something that hardly anyone will see until it’s ready, and worried about people stealing it anyway because a company with deeper legal pockets can still come along and harass you. Or you can open it up, get a lot more leverage on your time and talent, and create a lot more value for more people in the process.

Try a small experiment and see if you like it. Share a little. Chances are, the sky’s not going to fall on you, and who knows? You might even make a serendipitous connection, learn something new, make something happen. =)

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  • http://filipinolibrarian.blogspot.com/ vonjobi

    this reminds me of “Love is, like five loaves and two fish, always too little until you start giving it away.” knowledge abundance, in my opinion, is just a fancy term for love =)

  • http://randell.ph randell

    I totally agree. Sharing ideas and not being afraid that other people might steal it allows me to get feedbacks that I can use to further refine those ideas. And sometimes, the feedbacks are even better than the first draft of my idea, which teaches me a lot of stuff in the process.

  • http://www.panares.org Angelo Panares

    Just like open source software, sharing and passing ideas around will evolve into a much better solution for everyone. It is through collaboration and sharing that will fuel our evolution and improvement.

  • http://www.jan-edelmann.com Jan Edelmann

    Nice topic :)

    I just watched a document of the first 3D computer game Elite. If the guys (David Braben and Ian Bell) had not shared information among themselves, they probably weren’t able to succeed doing the same alone.

    However, they were tighly doing the development work by themselves in a fear that their brilliant idea would be stolen. The fear was probably groundless. They were only two in the world who wanted to invest so much time for that and, second, they were probably only two who were That excited about the idea of such a space game. :) Third, they were probably the best programmes in the world that were able to create working code for that little amount capacity of memory (22k).

    And yes, I played as young boy the game Elite.

  • http://www.jan-edelmann.com Jan Edelmann

    Nice topic :)

    I just watched a document of the first 3D computer game Elite. If the guys (David Braben and Ian Bell) had not shared information among themselves, they probably weren’t able to succeed doing the same alone.

    However, they were tighly doing the development work by themselves in a fear that their brilliant idea would be stolen. The fear was probably groundless. They were only two in the world who wanted to invest so much time for that and, second, they were probably only two who were That excited about the idea of such a space game. :) Third, they were probably the best programmes in the world that were able to create working code for that little amount capacity of memory (22k).

    And yes, I played as a young boy the game Elite.

  • http://pensivemoonlight.blogspot.com Angel

    This is one of the reasons why I like reading your blog. You have a knack for turning things around in a positive way. This is my first comment, and definitely not going to be my last. This post made me rethink again why I haven’t been aggressively blogging about the technical details of my work and thesis as I used to in my previous blog. When I do, I just keep posts about my work and research as general as possible. Not because I’m afraid of people stealing ideas but really because of the implied (imagined?) confidentiality of my corporate job.

  • http://www.trellon.com Sam Kleinman

    Agreed!

    I think another side of this coin is that if people use our ideas, and are able to be more successful at them, then there’s less that we have to do. If we’re working on similar projects, than our burden of proof is individually lower. A rising tide lifts all boats.

    The key, then is to be effective and out there, and I think by working through our ideas we make them better, sharper, and more clear.

    Knowledge production is so rarely a zero-sum game, even if it feels that way from time to time.

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