Social Capital vs. Intellectual Capital — what’s more valuable?

This may seem like a ridiculous question to ask, but its one that has been increasingly top-of-mind over the last few weeks as I’ve been talking with a broad cross-section of folks interested in Expertise. We are all familiar with the saying “It’s not what you know, but who you know”, and while I definitely don’t believe in the absoluteness of the statement I do feel that there is something of value in the idea that knowing people may be just as important as knowing stuff.

Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock the last few years is intimately familiar with Quantitative Easing, where every Central Bank has been working overtime to inject as much capital as possible into the economy. Capital is only valuable when it is in motion, when its locked up in a bank its not doing anyone any good, and I would argue its the same with intellectual capital. Knowledge is at its most valuable when it is freely flowing through the network increasing the collective intelligence of the organization. Flow of intellectual capital also ensures that knowledge is distributed to more people within the business which leaves the company with less exposure if/when the expert leaves the company, as everyone eventually does.

However hoarding knowledge can become a power play between employees and employers, which means that companies have to incentivize employees to share their knowledge. They have to create a culture of sharing so that it becomes inconceivable to do anything less. They must value Social Capital. And so we come back to the original question I posed at the beginning…

“Social Capital vs. Intellectual Capital — what’s more valuable?”

It’s probably impossible to say one is more valuable than the other, however I believe that you can say that “Intellectual Capital is worthless, or at least devalued, without Social Capital”. I would argue that having medium levels of expertise flowing freely through your enterprise (it’s life’s blood) is way more valuable than having high levels of expertise locked up in a small number of people. If organizations are measuring expertise, then they should be measuring it in terms of its ability to be effectively applied, to grow and expand, and be reabsorbed back into the business.

Should expertise analysis combine the measure of what you know and who you know? Should it be a combination of intellectual capital AND social capital? Should it take into consideration a person’s ability and proven track record in sharing their knowledge with the right people so that it gets most effectively applied to benefit the business?  I don’t have the answer (although I have my opinion, and yes I believe in the value of social capital), however answer or not, I do believe its a question worth asking…

2 Comments to “Social Capital vs. Intellectual Capital — what’s more valuable?”

  1. Very interesting, We’ve all seen the damaging effect on business where knowledge is locked away among very few people. It goes beyond the risk caused by single points of failure. It can also lock a business into sub optimal processes/systems through fear of change when the knowledge about them is not shared among the right people. Undoubtedly, some knowledge custodians protect knowledge as a power play. Others just may not find the time to share it.

    Measuring Social Capital has the potential to throw light on these areas. You can envisage potential benefits for business, for example, identifying and mitigating risk where strategic knowledge is siloed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yep! We’ve recently been doing work around identifying the connectivity between organizations, identifying information brokers and examining organizational brittleness (where they are overly dependent on a small number of information brokers). It generates some very interesting insights for leaders and helps them better appreciate the power of freeing up knowledge flow.


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