I love this observation by Jay Deragon about the Social Learning Curve: “All things social are creating a herd of copycats following practices, methods and behavio[u]r created by the frenzy of learning something new …”

To what end? is the inevitable question.

Once learned, something is no longer new. In fact, it retains distinctive value only whilst the numbers of people who have access to that knowledge remains small. And yet, thanks to all things social, the chances of that happening are becoming less and less. And the pressures to democratise what one knows are also increasing.

So everyone feels a pressure to learn, and many brands feel a pressure to share, but once accessed by many people, learning retains diminishing competitive advantage. It quite literally devolves to common knowledge. It becomes how ‘everyone’ does things, what ‘everyone’ agrees on, the way ‘everyone’ sees the world. Soon, what was new is basis.

The tipping point for example. Once breakthrough. Now mainstream.

Knowledge commoditises.

I happen to really like Collins’ book ‘Good to Great’, but if you believe that by reading it today somehow you will emerge with an understanding that presents you with a clear competitive advantage, you couldn’t be more wrong. Why? Simply because everyone you’re competing against has read it too. And between those readings, the reviews, the lectures and assignments at every business school across the world, and the many subsequent discussions, all the learnings are now widely circulated and applied. There is no secret to be had. ‘Hedgehogs’ are now relatively commonplace.

That dynamic puts so many brands in the knowledge business in three ways:

  1. They must keep pace with the learning around them to avoid being left behind;
  2. They must share new learnings publicly in order to make their brand more findable, to gain authority in the marketplace (ironically by making more and more people aware of, and accepting of, what they know), and to encourage others to feel that they should share their learnings too; and yet
  3. Brands must retain and protect some learning, or some aspect of their learning, and continue to generate new learning or new variations of their cornerstone learning, in order to differentiate their brand from that of their competitors. Otherwise they too will become an also-ran.

Increasingly it seems to me brands must steer a knowledge course between three very different principles:

  • Momentum: They must use knowledge to gain thought leadership status in their sector and to move customers’ and investors’ thinking forward to the point where it aligns with what they offer.
  • Protection: They must take care not to be so open with their thinking that competitors gain the upper-hand or that customers feel they can do things themselves.
  • Reaction: They must be prepared to react astutely and decisively as competitors choose to advance their own thinking in order to meet the insatiable demand of the market for new learning.

I liken this to trying to get anywhere by car in Rome during rush-hour: accelerator, brake, lane change …


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