The Balance Sheet for Knowledge Assets


Innovation economics has a way of forcing us to look at the mirror image of conventional wisdom.  This article will look at knowledge assets as they might appear on an accounting balance sheet.  You may be surprised at what happens at the bottom line.

Wall Street will often reward a company that has a large backlog of orders. This can appear in the eyes of most observers as an asset. After all, who would not want a backlog of orders?  However, in the world of social media, a huge backlog causes a serious problem – it represents commitments made that have not yet been delivered. An unfulfilled promise in a social network is a liability and not an asset.  By extension, a backlog in an innovation economy is a liability and not an asset (note: climate change).

Applying conventional wisdom to an innovation economy, we find that most companies have an excellent inventory of the “liability” but a poor inventory of the “asset” that will execute those promises. All of their plans, specifications, blueprints, job descriptions, policies and procedures, etc., are liabilities in an innovation economy because these define the promise that is unfulfilled, not the asset that will fulfill them.

Until recently, companies assumed that the right knowledge assets will always be available – an assumption that for a long time has limited the level of productivity that humans can achieve, specifically, the sustainability of natural resources. The absence of a knowledge inventory limits the complexity of problems that humans can solve much like industry was limited to custom machinery before Eli Whitney demonstrated the concept of interchangeable parts less than 200 years ago.

Further, if the product line is expected to have a life cycle of more than a few years, the knowledge inventory must extend beyond the doors of the company and into the surrounding community.  Therefore, the knowledge inventory must take on the taxonomy of the community, not the taxonomy of the corporation such as skill codes, levels, titles, etc. The requirement is now clearly in the domain of social networks.  Yet, I still hear grumblings in the blog sphere that social networks cannot be monetized – nothing should be further from the truth.

So, let’s talk about the bottom line.  For example, Boeing announced today that their greatest future challenge would be the availability of engineers. Boeing has a market capitalization of $34B and a $300B backlog.  Money has a 10:1 multiplier as it travels through and economy.  For a balanced accounting statement, what would be the real value of a social network that can capture the correct knowledge inventory to support Boeing; 34B, 300B, or 3T?

In general, valid estimates of the bottom line can vary by 2 orders of magnitude depending on the point of view of Wall Street, corporate management, or the social network community.  Who would be the better steward?

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