Hoarding Disorder

Not long ago, I was attending a senior-level trade group meeting filled with many of the advertising industry’s most important CEOs, when the subject of sharing information came up. As it turned out, I was the contrarian in the group, being of the opinion that we should share our white papers and points of view with other agencies. After all, many smaller shops can’t afford to create intellectual capital. What’s more, the idea of hoarding information just doesn’t make sense anymore: Social media has displaced it.

My opinions were somewhat self-serving, since my company does not have as big a research budget as many of my competitors do (although proportionately we probably invest a greater percentage of our revenue in it). My cohorts proclaimed that intellectual capital was a core differentiator, and I agree completely. But that’s where our perspectives diverge. I believe that the more widely shared the information, the more powerful it becomes — and the more important the sharer becomes.

When people hoard information, they immediately limit the potential for idea generation. If, say, only two people have access to data, they become the only two with the opportunity to build ideas from it. But if a thousand people can see it, the likelihood that a brilliant idea will result is exponentially increased. Today, it’s extraordinarily easy to give access to that many people and more — so why shouldn’t we? 

There are still people within organizations that limit access to information and, presumably, they believe that such limiting affords them a measure of power. That game is sadly common in companies that motivate through fear. In my view, such places will be short-lived; the power and influence of social media will destroy them.

Wikipedia has proven that information should be easily accessible. Linux demonstrated that brilliant ideas could be executed when information is shared and people collaborate. Facebook and Tumblr have shown us that the more widely we share information, the more interesting we become. By opening ourselves up and disclosing what we know, we’re effectively saying: “This is important to me” and, hence, “This is who I am.” We’re defining ourselves by the information we’re liking, posting, forwarding, repeating. The most prolific bloggers and tweeters are also often the most interesting, useful and powerful ones.

There’s something else true about information, which should motivate us all to exchange it freely: It gets outdated. Fast. When I first started in this business 22 years ago, statistics simply didn’t change all that quickly. A presentation describing the media habits of thirtysomething professionals was probably accurate for a couple of years. Such a notion is laughable now. Almost as quickly as an analysis gets released, it’s outdated.

So if today’s information has such a painfully short shelf life, what could be the purpose served in hoarding it? Why not instead get credit for the thinking and help shape the public discourse before the analysis ages to irrelevance? Why not earn some industry recognition and, in the process, help further the thinking around communications?

Of course, it makes no sense for me to call for this kind of action but sit on the sidelines, so I’ve elected to do my part. One of my favorite work-related sites is SlideShare.net. It’s sort of like the YouTube for presentations. People happily post their presentations, which immediately become sharable and easy to view. Over the last three weeks I’ve posted 10 presentations that have received more than 3,000 views and even quite a few “likes.”

Might I have inadvertently assisted my own competition? Perhaps. But I also know that people who weren’t aware of my company and my work now are. I also believe that by posting our perspectives, we’ve increased the collective knowledge pool, and that can only help us in the long run. By sharing what we know, at least we get credit for having the idea in the first place — and can more efficiently monetize the investment.