October 20, 2008

Growing Knowledge - By Sanjay Anandaram

It is fashionably said that we now live in a Knowledge Economy. Where value is created not by gaining access to proprietary information or by political wheeling-dealing but by better utilizing in-depth knowledge of a subject, market and process. Ideas and innovation are key and central elements of this economy.

Now how do ideas and innovation emerge? They emerge from insights and observations. From asking questions and challenging assumptions. From imagining possibilities. Insights generally come from individuals while ideas are developed and shaped by groups. Innovation usually requires an organization of some sort to deliver on ideas. It is therefore critical that each individual learn to be insightful and be able to ideate in groups for innovation to occur. Only a prepared person recognizes when opportunity or serendipity knocks on the door. Preparation, in turn, implies that one must be aware, informed and knowledgeable.

How does then the current financial and economic crisis around the world affect us in India’s entrepreneurial ecosystem? What are the different options ahead of us? What can we do to deal with the situation?

We must first be aware there’s a problem. We must then be able to assess the likely impact on our businesses and then group together to generate ideas – hopefully innovative ideas – to not only survive but prosper when the conditions improve.

One cannot be aware, informed and knowledgeable if one doesn’t read, introspect, discuss and debate. Through this process ideas and innovation emerge. Now the big question: How many of us really read? And I don’t mean this in a facetious or in a facile manner. Reading not simplistic headlines that reduce knowledge to the equivalent of instant noodles. For example, how many of us read about and try to understand the economic landscape of our industry? How many of us read to understand the technical issues in depth? How deep is our understanding of issues that concern their industry? In addition, how much do we read about and how aware are we of the broader environment – markets, customers, technology, regulatory and legal aspects, processes and subject domain areas? Do we read case studies of different businesses, understand entrepreneurial experiences and journeys, observations and actions by investors, learning about investment matters and so on.

Ideas come from multiple sources and being widely read certainly helps a big deal. In a larger sense, to abstract the learnings to create transferable and usable models and templates, to apply experiences from one area to another, the ability to see things as multiple shades of gray and not just black and white, to understand nuances, to avoid making simplistic assumptions, to have a historical and socio-cultural context since these are very important requirements to be able to “see” and appreciate the possibilities of innovation around.

Without knowledge and awareness, our focus tends to be on the transactional, on the here and the now. Our focus will be on treating everything as an unnecessary cost without being able to distinguish investments from costs, assets from expenses. We cannot develop long term thinking and strategies. And without long term thinking, we will continue to muddle through and somehow manage to do things without getting the full benefit of the value creation. And this muddling through, in turn, will ensure that we will not be able to build businesses that can truly take advantage of the knowledge economy.

There’s an interesting Chinese proverb that says:

If you want 1 year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want 10 years of prosperity, grow trees. If you want 100 years of prosperity, grow people.

We, in India, have created a billion plus people. Now we need to grow them to become insightful individuals who can develop and shape ideas and play important roles in the creation of the innovative industries. Growing people requires an investment in knowledge and awareness creation.

Can each one of us in the entrepreneurial eco-system decide to start reading?

What do you think?

Sanjay Anandaram is a passionate advocate of entrepreneurship in India; He brings close to two decades of experience as an entrepreneur, corporate executive, venture investor, faculty member, advisor and mentor. He’s involved with Nasscom, TiE, IIM-Bangalore, and INSEAD business school in driving entrepreneurship. He can be reached at sanjay@jumpstartup.net. The views expressed here are his own.