Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Intellectual Capital – What’s in it for me?

“What’s in it for me?” IC practitioners, the world over, have probably heard this question more often than not. Answering it, I am quite sure, is not so easy since the answer fluctuates greatly depending on both the background of the person asking the question and his or her specific interest in the field of Intellectual Capital. Nonetheless, let me take a stab at answering this question as generically as possible, using illustrations along the way to convey a larger point.

Intellectual Capital, we know, is a set of intangibles that coalesce to give an individual or a firm a distinct competitive advantage in the marketplace. Want to see the proof? Ask yourself why you prefer to drive an extra mile to do your weekly grocery shopping at a store which looks much cleaner, is well lighted, has spacious aisles, offers free parking and always has all your items in stock. Wait, don’t bother - the answer is in the question itself. However did you ever stop to wonder whether the factors that made you go out of your way and ‘prefer’ a specific grocery store were purely a matter of chance or could it be that someone deliberately crafted these things just to attract and retain demanding customers such as yourself? Intellectual Capital, like most other good things in life, does not happen on its own – it has to be made to happen. The promoters of the grocery store you prefer probably surveyed customers like you on the various factors that would attract you to their store week after week, on the items that are most consumed by you, on the type of store layout you prefer, etc. before even putting a business plan together. The success of that plan was ensured from day one because by responding to the survey, you ensured that the grocery shop owner could fabricate a store that had a competitive advantage and by visiting it regularly you ensure that he can perennially raid your wallet every single week!

Still need more proof? Let me ask you – have you ever changed your dentist, your insurance agent, your tax advisor, your stock broker, your travel agent or even your barber? If you answered yes to any of these, just think of the reason for the change. Was it because the service that you were receiving had become routine? Was there a lack of personal touch? Were you getting herded in along with others? Were you missing individual attention? All in all, was that extra something missing in the service? Yes? You bet. That extra something is called ‘value-add’ in management jargon. Value addition happens when your service professional goes beyond the boundaries of performing the routine transaction and does something exclusively for you. For instance, your dentist could offer you an annual free check-up, your insurance agent could review your existing cover and suggest changes to suit your lifestyle, your stock broker could offer buying and selling tips and your barber could just subscribe to that latest fashion magazine that you could read while you are waiting your turn. Come to think of it, these value additions do not cost much – in most cases they are offered free – but they are the difference between why you stick with your current service professional or decide to take your business elsewhere. These value additions are a part of the Intellectual Capital of the Service Professional and they can literally be the difference between bloom and gloom (not to mention doom) for him or her.

Are you starting to get the point? Intellectual Capital may sound a mouthful, but it is present everywhere if you only care to see. In today’s knowledge era, it has come to be the difference between growth and stagnancy, between prosperity and paucity, between success and failure and even between survival and extinction. The days of plain old order taking are over. Insurance agents, travel agents, stock brokers and other professionals made money hand over fist in the last few decades only because they were in the agency business. If you needed an air ticket you had to buy it through your travel agent. If you needed to invest in stocks you had to talk to a stock broker. Likewise, if you needed an insurance policy you had to solicit an insurance agent. Order taking is best done by computers in the Information era. Computers are far cheaper than humans, can work 24 hrs a day, do not get tired, do not need supervision or food and do not make mistakes. All forms of agency businesses have already been replaced by Internet portals that are housed in giant data centers running multiple computers in redundant fashion. Those agencies that have not yet been hit with this reality are only counting their last days.

So how does this affect me, you say? I am a manager inside a big firm and am therefore insulated from all this change. Do you believe so? Nothing could be further from the truth. What is true for self employed professionals and businesses is true for corporate professionals as well. Look closely at what your job function is, once again. Is your department providing HR support services? Are you the training manager in your firm? Or are you a line manager in charge of production scheduling? Are you? Then you have reason to worry. Know this. HR support services are being increasingly provided by self supporting HR portals from vendors such as SAP and Oracle. Training, or more importantly learning, is increasingly assuming the form of CBT (Computer Based Training) that is delivered to the trainee on his computer in a digital format at the time of his choice. And production schedules in manufacturing shops are being increasingly generated by ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) software installed in-house. In short then, is your job function one step closer to being taken over by a computer? Is it a candidate for automation? If it is possible, it will happen. Obtaining competitive advantage through ruthless cost cutting is one of the most common outcomes of the Information era and it is bound to affect you as well. The only question is when.

What then should I do, you ask? The answer is strikingly simple too. Have you seen that poster of man rising from the posture of an ape many eons ago first to stand erect on his own two feet, then to walk, run and then use his hands for making tools for hunting? You couldn’t have missed it. That picture just got updated with an additional image towards the end – man using his brain. And that is what you need to do. I know by now, that you need proof. This time proof is easier. The Information era rewards those who use their brains much more than those who use their hands. I am not referring to the class distinction between white collar and blue collar workers here, although that would have been sufficient to make my point. But I ask you instead to follow the money trail. Tell me, which are some of the best paid professions? Go ahead name a few. Here, let me help you out. Investment Bankers, Surgeons, Fashion Designers and Lawyers who are at the top of their field are still people who are making money by the fistful. I am sure you wouldn’t grudge a New York lawyer his hourly rate of $400 – he is worth it you say. Similarly you wouldn’t stoop to bargain the price of a Louis Vuitton handbag would you? The name itself is worth more you say. Or would you negotiate the fees of the heart surgeon who is scheduled to perform a bypass surgery on your spouse next week? Definitely not, right? Well then ask yourself, why you would be willing to pay exorbitant sums to these people? The answer is because they have spent their lifetime in gathering specific knowledge and know how it can be used for your benefit. That is their Intellectual Capital. They are specialists. The Information era punishes generalists by replacing them with computers and rewards specialists with fame and fortune. The message is clear now - develop your own Intellectual Capital and become a specialist.

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