4 Chapter 4: The Knowledge Economy

4.1 Introduction

The knowledge-based economy, sometimes referred to as the economy of ideas, is a stage of the economy where the production of goods and services is mainly driven by knowledge and by the increased emphasis on intangible assets and intellectual capital (Powell and Snellman, 2004; Barlow, 1994). The knowledge economy is a postindustrial era characterized by automation, digitization, knowledge discovery, abundance of information, open innovations, and increased investments in research, science, and education. While the industrial economy was largely based on tangible assets in the form of products, machines, factories, buildings, and assembly lines, the knowledge economy expanded the horizon and increased valuation based on intangible goods in the form of intellectual capital and intellectual property (de Pablos and Edvinsson, 2020). The continued transformation of the economy and the information profession is made possible by the advances in information communications and technology.

The advent of the Internet and the Web removed traditional geographical boundaries and allowed individuals access to information created in different countries and different languages, expressing different cultures and different political views. The digital transformation of business and commerce brought about fundamental societal changes and revolutionized the way people access, use, manipulate, and interact with information. The use of mobile devices, learning technologies, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices has expanded the participation of people from around the world in the new economy (Shafique et al., 2020; Vermesan and Friess, 2013). Online and distant education emerged as one of the biggest beneficiaries of the digital economy. The COVID-19 pandemic would have had a more severe impact in the education sector without the ability by educational institutions to deliver instruction online. While the pandemic significantly affected certain sectors of the economy, such as travel, hospitality, and tourism, other sectors, such as technology, medicine, and education, were better able to adjust and continue to grow.

The terms knowledge economy and knowledge workers were publicized by the management guru and thinker Peter Drucker, first in his 1959 The Landmarks of Tomorrow book and, subsequently, in his 1966 book The Effective Executive and his 1969 book The Age of Discontinuity. Peter Drucker’s writings transformed the field of management where he predicted that people in the future will be using their heads more than their hands and, as such, knowledge workers depend on their organizations for incomes, but organizations of the future will depend on their employees for knowledge production; predicting the current shift where knowledge workers and knowledge professionals could do the work independently of the organization through freelancing and by being self-employed. However, the organization could not function and innovate without knowledge workers.

This transformed the concept of management from one focused on the management of people to one focusing on managing the knowledge residing in the minds of people and the outcome from putting this knowledge to work instead. Organizations are no longer measuring how knowledge workers contribute by the time they spend at work, but rather by the contribution they make to the organization’s intellectual capital regardless of the time or the place. In the knowledge economy, the knowledge workers are more mobile, more adaptive, and more innovative.

4.1.1Societal Transformation

The most significant innovation that led to the transition from an agrarian society to an industrial society was the discovery of electricity and the ability to mechanize much of the laborious agricultural activities. The work by Benjamin Franklin and other scientists in the eighteenth century paved the way for Thomas Edison in 1879 to invent the lightbulb, which not only lightened up dark places but created a brighter future in terms of societal developments and wealth generation (Basalla, 1988; Erenoğlu et al., 2019). Franklin’s confirmation in 1752 of the fact that lightning is a form of electricity opened the door for further research in this area (Lane, 2003). His lightning rod to prevent houses and protect structures from burning in thunderstorms was the first implementation of the theoretical framework (Kryzhanovsky, 1990). What was significant about Franklin’s discovery is the knowledge gained from the fact that lightning is a form of energy and electricity which could be channeled away to avoid destruction of property, and not a curse by or an act of evil spirit.

The transformation from agrarian to industrial brought with it significant changes in terms of modernization, urbanization, and what has become known as economies of scale. The term economies of scale refers to lowering the cost as a result of an increase in production and an increase in purchasing power. The production cost of a unit is reduced due to factors, such as mechanization or automation of the process or lower cost of material used in the production. Technological discoveries were instrumental in increasing production and the realization of the economies of scale (Silberston, 1972). The industrial revolution transformed businesses, economics, and societies by shifting focus to innovation and mass production of goods. It also gave rise to capitalism and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few while most people joined the work force.

For agrarian communities, the mechanization of equipment meant an increase in production but also meant less work opportunities because of large-scale agriculture and private farming. Grazing animals on public land became more difficult as more and more rich people started to buy land and converted that land into factories, housing, and private farming. As a result, many people left their small agricultural communities and moved to newly established industrial towns for manufacturing jobs. Urbanization and modernization meant significant changes to lifestyles. This was characterized by long working hours, pollution, and child labor.

One might argue that the transformation from the industrial society to the information society started with the invention of the printing press and the mass dissemination of printed information. The start of mass communication can be traced back to the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in 1455 and the creation of the first weekly printed newspaper in Antwerp in 1605; even though mass communication is generally equated with the invention of radio which did not happen until 1895 and the invention of television in 1925 (Kovarik, 2015). The emergence of new professions dealing solely with the production and distribution of information products signaled a shift in society.

Increased literacy and the evolution of publishing helped to usher in the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution that swept through Europe (Mokyr, 2007) during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Technological developments that paved the way for the Gutenberg printing press, such as the development of paper, ink, and movable type printing, led to the printing revolution and the mass production and spread of books. The printing press was a factor in the establishment and creation of scientific communities and the democratization of knowledge. Libraries played an important role in the democratization of knowledge and the dissemination of information to a wider population.

The increased importance of innovation and knowledge creation in the industrial society has led to an increase in emphasis on services and new economic sectors driven by information and knowledge. While the transition from the production of goods to services started much earlier, the terms post-industrialism or information society were popularized by Daniel Bell in his 1973 work The Coming of Post-Industrial Society. The invention of computers and the Internet accelerated the transition of the economy from a manufacturing-based economy to a services and value-added economy. The fundamental technologies that led to the transformation of the economy are made of a global network of networks encompassing LANs, WANs, and a Web of loosely connected networks. Security was a real challenge to the early utilization of the Internet for purposes of commerce. However, since then, information security techniques have advanced to the level that have made people become more comfortable trading and transacting services online.

Even though the transition from one state of the economy to another happened over a long period of time, many believe that the real turning point in the transformation came about with the advent of the Internet and the Web. One of the measures used in the transition from industrial to knowledge society is when the wealth generated from the services-based economy exceeds the wealth generated from a manufacturing-based economy. The postindustrial transformation is characterized by the shift from an emphasis on the production of goods to an emphasis on the production of services in addition to the production of goods. The transformation is also characterized by the replacement of blue-collar manual workers with knowledgeable workers and knowledgeable professionals. As new professions emerged, new job categories materialized that required more thinking than manual work. The Gig economy is the latest term used to describe the preference by knowledge workers and knowledge professionals for more flexible and portable work arrangements. Freelance and contract-based employment allows knowledge professionals to use their multitasking skills and talents to take on multiple projects.

4.2 Characteristics of the Knowledge Economy

Besides the fact that knowledge is considered a key factor in the production of goods and services, the realization of the knowledge economy was not possible without the technological advancement and the policies put in place to protect innovations and intellectual capital. The knowledge economy is not a bunch of fragmented ideas, but rather is a system of production and consumption based on intellectual capital. The followings are some of the major characteristics of the knowledge economy as well as the factors that contribute to the realization of the concept:

Knowledge as a factor of production

One of the main characteristics of the knowledge economy is the realization of the importance of knowledge as a factor of production and wealth generation. The transformation from industrial society to information and knowledge society was a natural evolution given the technological advances and the need for organizations to adjust and adapt to survive. For societies that did not go through the industrial revolution, the recognition of knowledge as a factor of production could be more challenging given the need for sizable investments in human capital and infrastructure (Hadad, 2017; Fisher, 1933). Part of the realization is also the need to establish a knowledge-based infrastructure where intellectual capital rights are respected and protected.

Globalization and the borderless

The advent of the knowledge economy removed physical and geographical barriers and allowed people to reach wider audiences using advanced technologies, such as websites, e-mail, and social media (Ferguson and Mansbach, 2012). The use of specialized marketing software such as Salesforce allowed for tracking customers and identifying new markets. The globalization of the economy placed increased pressure on countries and companies to adapt and adjust to the economic transformation. At the same time, globalization provided organizations the opportunity to expand their business beyond the traditional geographical boundaries, forge new partnerships, and offer new products and services.

The War of Talent

The knowledge economy opened the door for global competition at all levels including top talent. Knowledge workers and knowledge professionals are now more mobile, resourceful, and, at the same time, like to be challenged. McKinsey in 1997 coined the phrase “war for talent” highlighting the fierce competition for organizations to recruit and retain knowledge professionals (Michaels et al., 2001; Suseno and Pinnington, 2017). Organizations small and big are also starting to recognize the importance of a diverse, multicultural workforce. Laudon and Laudon (1998) noted that enterprises are being flattened with a more flexible arrangement of teams. The need to be responsive and flexible has forced many companies to downsize their staff, flatten bureaucratic hierarchies, and organize themselves into smaller units with ad hoc styles of management.

Emergence of new management style

Management experts in the 1980s and 1990s emphasized the need for a new management approach in response to knowledge-based engineering. Most notable are two experts’ books; Peter Senge’s 1990 title Fifth Discipline and Peter Drucker’s The New Realities published in 1994. The new management thinking advocates that the best and more successful companies are those whose managers work with people differently, helping them utilize their potential and making them full participants in the business (Rooney et al., 2010). Therefore, enterprises must increasingly develop knowledge-based strategies that focus on helping their knowledge workers to continuously innovate, learn, and improve the productivity of their work. Interest in knowledge management as a part of management practice has led to the creation of new management positions, such as Chief Knowledge Officer, Chief Learning Officer, and Chief Information Officer.

Increased collaboration and open innovation

The knowledge economy is also characterized by increased collaboration and open innovation (Elmquist et al., 2009). Many companies and organizations around the world are recognizing the importance of collaboration to deal with competition from larger organizations and conglomerates operating globally. Open innovation, on the other hand, provides these companies with the ability to work with people outside the organizational silo mentality and avoid the secrecy associated with the corporate research culture. The Gig economy and the preference of researchers and knowledge workers for a more flexible and portable work arrangement aligned with the shift toward more collaboration and open innovation, for example, open innovations and increased collaborations between universities and industry benefit small- and medium-enterprises (SMEs) and entrepreneurship (Bertello et al., 2021).

4.3The Role of Intellectual Capital

The worth of an organization is normally measured by the value of intellectual capital and physical capital. Intellectual capital is the intangible value of an organization and deals with human capital, customer capital, relationship management, and intellectual property. On the other hand, physical capital deals with tangible assets, such as buildings, equipment, and natural resources. In recent years and because of the transition to the knowledge economy, we have seen companies dealing with intangible assets and intellectual capital exceeding those dealing with physical capital. Apple and Amazon are good examples of companies exceeding a trillion dollars valuation. Stewart (1997) defined intellectual capital as “packaged useful knowledge.” He further elaborated that intellectual capital consists of knowledge embodied in various organization’s processes and practices, intellectual property in the form of patents, trademarks, and trade secrets, and human capital in the form of employee skills and competencies. Employees have long been recognized as an important and valuable resource in the organization that needs to be recognized and nurtured.

4.3.1 Intellectual Capital Components

Intellectual capital is intricately linked to the knowledge activities that take place in the organization. It is the cumulative knowledge derived from skills, competencies, experiences, relationships, research activities, innovations, trade secrets, and any other form of documented data and information. The following is a brief description of intellectual capital components.

  • Human Capital

The expression “our people are our main asset” is a phrase used to describe and emphasize the importance of human capital to the organization and the economy. Human capital is measured by the collective contribution made to the organization by the employees. In addition to individual skills and experiences, human capital is shaped by the organizational learning dynamics and the ability to nurture creativity and innovations (Popescu et al., 2016).

Human capital is one of the most complex types of intellectual capital. Knowledge embedded in organizational processes and practices is largely human based and it is normally transferred from one person to another in the form of tacit knowledge. Most organizations go the extra mile to recruit top talent but sometimes fail to recognize the value and importance of retaining existing talents that can make or break the organization. Programs, such as mentoring, shadowing, and apprenticeship, are a form of knowledge-management practice designed to help in transferring tacit knowledge from one person to another.

  • Customer and Relationship Capital:

Customer capital is the investment an organization makes to grow and sustain their business. Partnerships, franchises, licenses, and any other types of arrangements are based on trust and mutual understanding. Some of the performance indices that can be used to measure customer capital include repeat business transactions, market dominance due to market strategy, customer feedback, and so on. Customer relationship management (CRM) refers to practices, processes, and technologies the organization uses to capture and manage customer information and interaction. CRM is a fast-growing area. CRM is a critical success factor in today’s increasingly competitive business environment (Anton, 1996; Khodakarami and Chan, 2014). To retain customers, it is important for organizations to have a stronger focus on customer relations and the ability to measure and manage their customer capital.

  • Structural Capital

Structural capital consists of all nonphysical capital owned by organizations. This includes processes, procedures, practices, methods, techniques, and intellectual property. Intellectual property consists of patents, trademarks, copyrights, databases, software, and design work (Sherwood, 2019). Structural capital also includes organizational structure, philosophy, norms, and practices.

The ability of the organization to leverage knowledge and intellectual in its operations has direct impact on the organization performance and market value. Unlike traditional accounting systems, accounting systems for intellectual capital are more complex and they depend on the organization’s ability to demonstrate potential and leverage existing knowledge assets. The source of the organization’s economic value depends on its ability to manage intellectual capital and intangible knowledge resources.

4.4Knowledge Management

Managing knowledge resources, nurturing a culture of knowledge sharing, promoting communities of practice, recruiting and retaining top talent, and creating and nurturing an agile learning environment are topics which are essential to the management of intellectual capital and intangible asset resources within the organization. This is in addition to dealing with large amounts of data and information generated daily by advanced technologies. Today, managers and executives are overwhelmed by the amount of internal and external information coming their way that could hinder their ability to make the right business decisions. As a result, organizations are increasingly realizing the importance and relevance of knowledge management processes and practices to their business. Knowledge management deals with knowledge processes, such as knowledge creation, knowledge discovery, and knowledge utilization, using a set of practices, such as communities of practice, best practices, and lessons learned. Knowledge management allows organizations to see the big picture and the interconnectedness of the various parts of the system (Al-Hawamdeh, 2003; McInerney and Koenig, 2011).

While many of the processes and practices in knowledge management, like best practices, communities of practice, mentoring, shadowing, and apprenticeship, are not new and are used mainly as part of human relationship management, the term knowledge management was popularized first by Ikujiro Nonaka in 1991 following an article on “The knowledge-creating company” in Harvard Business Review and a second article by Nonaka and Takeuchi in their 1995 book on The Knowledge-Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation. Nonaka discussed the Japanese companies’ integrated approach toward knowledge creation and the interaction between explicit knowledge (information) and tacit knowledge (skills and competencies). His view of knowledge as a continuous transformation from one state into another using the spiral model in Figure 4.1 considers the human dimension and the interaction between explicit and tacit knowledge.

Figure 4.1 SECI model for knowledge exchange and transformation.
Figure 4.1 SECI model for knowledge exchange and transformation.

Figure 4.1 shows the four components of the Nonaka SECI model (socialization, externalization, combination, and internalization) and the types of interaction that happen as a result of the knowledge creation process. Socialization deals with tacit knowledge creation and knowledge transfer through mechanisms, such as mentoring, shadowing, apprenticeship, and communities of practice. Socialization deals with tacit knowledge in the form of skills and experiences that can only be transferred through training and coaching, such as swimming or riding a cycle. Externalization deals with the articulation of tacit knowledge into publications, design models, charts, diagrams, and documentations. The tacit to explicit knowledge conversion is not necessarily an easy or direct process but rather relies on experiences, skills, and competencies needed to craft the intended result. Combination is the ability to combine different types of information or explicit knowledge and transform them into a new type of explicit knowledge. Even though this process is tagged as explicit to explicit, it takes experiences, competencies, and skills to produce the desired outcomes. Internalization facilitates the transformation of explicit knowledge into tacit knowledge (learning by doing). It involves the types of learning that happens in schools, laboratories, experimenting, and so on.

The work by Nonaka on tacit knowledge followed an earlier work by Michael Polanyi, a Hungarian born scholar who migrated to England and became a professor of physical chemistry at the University of Manchester from 1933 to 1948 and later became a professor of social sciences from 1948 to 1958. His essay on The Logic of Tacit Inference was published in Philosophy in 1966 and his book on The Tacit Dimension in 1967 laid the groundwork for the discussion about tacit knowledge. Polanyi is widely cited in knowledge management, in particular his line about “We can know more than we can tell” (1967, p. 4). This not only referred to the fact that we cannot describe what the knowledge is using words, but we might also not be aware of the possession of the knowledge until the need for it arises.

Polanyi viewed tacit knowledge as personal. It is something that we possess but we are not aware of its existence until the need arises, and we demonstrate it by doing or through actions. In describing tacit knowledge Polanyi (1966) stated that

This act of integration, which we can identify both in the visual perception of objects and in the discovery of scientific theory, is the tacit power we have been looking for. I shall call it tacit knowing (p. 3).

Polanyi did not believe that tacit knowledge can be expressed in words. It is both sensory and conceptual. He used the apprenticeship example to illustrate a student following the master by trusting in what the master is doing even when the student cannot analyze and account in detail for its effectiveness. The tacit knowledge transfer occurs because of observing the master and emulating his movements and actions.

Polanyi argued that all knowledge is personal knowledge in the sense that it is tacit or is rooted in the tacit dimension (Polanyi, 1958). He did not believe that explicit knowledge can be separated from tacit knowledge. Polanyi (1966) in this regard stated that

While tacit knowledge can be possessed by itself, explicit knowledge must rely on being tacitly understood and applied. Hence all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge. A wholly explicit knowledge is unthinkable (p. 7).

The importance of tacit knowledge to corporate success was expressed by Lew Platt, chairman, president, and CEO of Hewlett-Packard in his famous quote “If only HP knew what HP knows, we’d be three times more productive” (Stewart, 1997; Martiny, 1998). Tacit knowledge normally walks out of the door once an employee leaves the organization. Organizations need to do better job on knowledge retention if they have to protect their valuable tacit knowledge.

Davenport and Prusak (1998) referred to knowledge as made of experiences, values, information and insights that only originates and applied in the minds of the knowers. It is embodied in organizational routines, process, practices, and norms. This definition extends the concept of knowledge beyond the personal domain argued for by Polanyi. Their definition extends that knowledge could exist in norms, practices, routines, and procedures. Practices that might differentiate one organization from another. Similarly, Snowden (1999) referred to knowledge management as the identification, optimization, and active management of intellectual assets. While explicit knowledge can be held in artifacts, tacit knowledge is possessed by individuals, groups of people, or the community as a whole.

In this book, we view knowledge management as an interdisciplinary approach to dealing with all aspects of knowledge processes and practices. It encompasses people, technology, and organizational norms and practices. This integrated approach to knowledge management takes into consideration the complexity associated with managing knowledge and the fact that tacit knowledge resides with people. Today, the key to economic success is linked to the organization’s ability to manage knowledge resources rather than managing people. A similar view of knowledge management as a discipline that promotes an integrated approach to identifying, capturing, evaluating, retrieving, and sharing organizational information and knowledge assets is articulated by the Gartner Group. They defined information and knowledge assets to include databases, documents, policies, procedures, and previously un-captured expertise and experience in individual workers (Duhon, 1998; Koenig, 2012).

4.5 Conclusion

In this chapter, we discussed societal transformation and transition from the agrarian society to the industrial society and then to the information and knowledge society. We discussed postindustrial revolution and how the invention of computers and the Internet accelerated the transition of the economy from a manufacturing-based economy to a services and value-added economy. The chapter discussed the characteristics of the knowledge-based economy and the increased role of intellectual capital in the valuation of the network of knowledge-based organizations. Knowledge management is an interdisciplinary approach to dealing with all aspects of knowledge processes, such as knowledge creation, sharing, discovery, organization, and retention. It encompasses people, technology, and organizational norms and practices. Knowledge management is essential to the organization’s integrated approach to managing intangible assets. The increased complexity in the organization because of the digital revolution requires organizations to adopt a more scientific and methodological approach to managing their knowledge resources.


Discussion Questions

  • Why is the knowledge economy important?
  • What are the major differences between knowledge economy and the traditional economy?
  • Discuss the major differences between managing people and managing knowledge.
  • More than 50 years ago, Peter Drucker predicted that information and knowledge will change the way people work. How do you see this today?
  • What is your understanding of the knowledge worker?
  • If we did not have the Internet today, would we still have the knowledge economy?
  • What is the relationship between knowledge management and the knowledge economy?
  • Explain the role of intangible assets in the knowledge economy. Provide one example to illustrate your points.
  • Identify one country that is, in your opinion, a good example of the knowledge economy.
  • Discuss the importance of talents in the knowledge economy.
  • Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of open innovations.


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