Wednesday, May 18, 2011

My first successful experience of global knowledge sharing

It was actually in the early 1970's that I had my first successful experience of global knowledge sharing.

It happened by accident and through a great tragedy.

A very good friend and business colleague of mine was, like me, a passionate private pilot. But very sadly, he crashed and died with his wife and friends on board, in the misty hills and mountains of Snowdonia in Wales.

As the only computer programmer around that could understand his COBOL program, at the time, his employees asked me to keep running this main business application, to keep the company running.

This is how it worked.

Quite simply, all the major manufacturers of agricultural tractors, worldwide, all knew each other well. (Ford, Massey Ferguson, International Harvester, John Deere etc.) The agricultural industry was very old and mature indeed. As a result, most people had, at one time or another, worked also in several of the competitor companies.

The problem was that the tractor component manufacturers and the tractor manufacturers themselves were always either greatly overproducing or greatly underproducing to try to meet market demands.

So the manufacturers agreed to share, each month, their total shipments to their dealers and other production and distribution information and knowledge.

This was achieved by submitting their information, in strict confidence, to an independant computer bureau that would then produce the total picture without revealing the identity of the individual contributions. That was what I did each month.

It was perfect. It really helped tractor manufacturers and component manufacturers with their production. It saved lots of money. It increased efficiency and effectiveness.

This global information and knowledge sharing was so successful that within a few years only, we were running lots of global exchanges for all types of agricultural and construction machinery and equipment.

This really was a first successful experience of global knowledge sharing.

There was so much to be gained by collaborating and not just competing.

Eventually, the manufacturers gained enough confidence and trust in the exchange system that they even then started to reveal their identities to one another, and not just anonymous totals.

Unfortunately, this successful evolution of global information and knowledge sharing had to end.

The European Commission decided that there was nothing at all wrong with the global exchanges of information and knowledge, but it had been brought to their attention that the annual meetings we held, with all manufacturers present, could be a potential breeding ground for collusion on prices and market shares etc.

It got so bad that every manufacturer even had to fully report the next day if they even accidentally met a competitor anywhere at, say, a trade fair or any event.

Eventually, the manufacturers had to greatly reduce this activity into remote, anonymous, monthly submissions of broad information only. This was in order to comply with European Commission, Treaty of Rome Article 85, on unfair competition.

But that was a long time ago. And I imagine it was one of the first, if not the pioneering, global exchanges of information and knowledge which had, initially, huge business benefits and success.

Ultimately, it could not be sustained because of issues of 'ethics and trust'

What can we learn from this today in our 21st Century knowledge driven corporates, organizations and institutions?

Ron Young

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