Sunday, December 06, 2009


Over the years, I've often discussed the ideas of physical and human (intellectual and social) capital within organisations. I thought I'd cover some old ground again.

Organisations simply exist between the intersection of a network of people and a mass of activities undertaken. Remove this and you're left with what an organisation really is, nothing bar any remaining residual capital.

The act of people interacting with activities creates several forms of capital, three of the most interesting are physical, intellectual and social. All of these forms of capital are susceptible to the ravages of commoditisation.

We've already experienced the effects of commoditisation on physical assets. For example, the news industry was once able to use physical assets (large and expensive printing machinery) to control the activity of publishing - not only what was published but whom. In days of past if you wanted to be a journalist your options were limited.

Today, the digitisation of content and the spread of the means of mass communication have changed the rules and commoditised this activity. The barriers to entry have been severely diminished and anyone can publish, This means news organisations have been forced to seek other means of differentiation, value and ultimately control.

Equally, many forms of intellectual capital has slowly been commoditised. Whereas in the past you needed direct access to a lawyer to help with the arcane knowledge of how to write a will, today you can download forms online.

All manner of knowledge has been neatly codified, commodified (given a value for access) and ultimately commoditised (become standardised, commonly available, relentlessly driven to a lower cost) through market forces.

Access to knowledge can (and has been) an important mechanism of control for some organisations. The commoditisation of such knowledge diminishes this means of control. As a journalist may find they are less dependent on a news company in order to publish, a budding lawyer may find it easier to access the knowledge they need without a law firm.

Obviously both types of organisations still provide the benefits created by the internal ecosystem of a network of people and a mass of different activities (i.e. rapid access to certain skills, specialists and supporting structures). However, both types of organisation will also have social capital - interactions, reputation and relationships with others.

Hence a journalist or lawyer my choose to work with one particular organisation because it can offer access to the right people, provides a prestigious network and has a high amount of social capital.

I mention this because many social network tools are currently busy codifying relationships between people. Furthermore, some are also trying to identify and provide measurable value in those networks (the act of commodification). Could this onslaught also lead to the commoditisation of business networks?

Will we see a future where we can buy and sell access to a social network? How will this impact organisations who depend upon their networks and use access as a means of control? Will companies also attempt to control and own this network more tightly?

These are just some of the questions I suspect we will be facing over the next few years.