Thought leadership is sustainable market leadership

Published in The Express Tribune October 18th, 2010.

Pakistan yet to face realities of the Internet-dominated world

In the more privileged circles, the incidence and rise of the Internet has become common knowledge. However, as it stands, the Internet seems to have had limited practical implications in Pakistan, underscored through how knowledge is created, managed and disseminated within organisations.

In many ways, we remain confined to the business model of the industrialised century: hide, confine, and protect knowledge to self, whether in the form of an organisation or person.

Unfortunately, the Internet – given its inherent features of freedom, access and equality tailored to knowledge sharing, openness and empowerment – will not let this setup to flourish for too long.

Meanwhile, Pakistan still remains protected, as it is yet to face the realities of the Internet-dominated world, given the limited use and access of the technology. But growth in usage and eventual overturn is inevitable.

The concept of learning by sharing is not new, with roots stemming from indigenous societies to modern day industries such as motorsport and technology. Steven Pinch and Nick Henry in their 1998 publication refer to this spill-over of knowledge as ‘untraded interdependencies’, the benefits of which are underlined through the existence of clusters, where such interaction adds economic value.

Academia and research

Let’s consider the interplay of the concept in the academic and research industry.

The London School of Economics, alongside other leading universities, attracts audiences and shares its public lectures locally and internationally for free. Such is considered a regular and critical feature of the university experience, having institutionalised its existence.

This does not mean that the school is losing its market power or competitive edge. In fact, the opposite is true.  It is a tool used to create social power, generating the ‘wow factor’ and instilling a strong desire in students to be part of the process.

Open courseware at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the recent advancement of Professor Sandel (Harvard University) to television underlines the case. The Internet has changed the parameters of competitive edge in business.

Successful academia have started using knowledge to create soft power, utilising it as a tool to market and attract students – believing that if you constrain exchange and dissemination, the Internet will outpace you.

Consider also the social success of the Khan Academy, which provides a free online classroom for the world.

The competitive edge of a university is maintained through the interactivity between students and faculty in and outside the classroom. The social, intellectual and economic opportunities it provides, the presence of diversity, and most of all the ‘chaos’ — creating avenues for ideas, learning and breakthroughs.

An interesting example exists through how research is shared and disseminated. International firms such as McKinsey and Company, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Boston Consulting Group share some ideas, publications and analysis with the public for free (readily available on their website), utilising it as a form of tacit marketing. You would not find such information on most corporate websites in Pakistan.

Similarly, universities and broadly faculty share and upload their publications and research articles online for free view. This reflects a social and intellectual mindset gaining precedence and force in the new generation of learning, a feature you would not find on websites of most organisations in Pakistan, including many universities and research groups.

Thought Leadership

The value of sharing is highlighted by Bill Taylor who says: “The only sustainable form of market leadership is thought leadership… the most powerful way to demonstrate your position as a thought leader is to teach other organisations what you know — whether they are customers, suppliers, or even direct competitors.” This is reinforced by Dr Kaplan who argues, ‘the more we educate, the faster we move as well. By teaching others what we’ve learned, it forces us to keep learning.’

The approach ‘is not to out-market the competition, but to out-teach the competition. Why? Because teaching creates a different kind of presence in the marketplace, it creates a higher sense of loyalty among those who learn from you. And it helps the company create not just customers for its products but an audience for its ideas — in the same way that famous chefs are willing to share their recipes so as to build a following for their overall approach to cooking’ says Bill Taylor.

Business models need to respond to changing times. The year 2010 is quite different from the year 2000, where division and hierarchy of knowledge is not the way to create and sustain an organisation. As modern models of exchange evolve, thought leadership is social leadership, which reinforces economic and political leadership.

The writer is an economist with a MSc in local economic development from the London School of Economics and Political Science

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