I vividly recall my first meeting with Dr. Paul Cousins, my PhD Research Supervisor at the University of Bath School of Management. We were meeting in his office to discuss my initial doctoral research proposal and to plan my subsequent readings/studies. I was a Research Manager with a large prestigious management consultancy in their Supply Chain Management / Purchasing Practice. The rise of the dot.coms – and the mesmerizing run-up in “new economy” stock prices – was underway. I discussed the “rule-breaking” and industry-wide transformations occurring across company value chains, and used the latest buzzwords / phrases appearing in the popular business press (erroneously to increase my digital creditability). After finishing my monologue, Dr. Cousins paused, regarded me sympathetically, and said, “I have no idea what you just said, and my great fear is that you don’t either.” An inauspicious / uncomfortable yet highly valuable beginning to my (illustrious?) academic research career …

I share this personal story to illustrate my current impressions of the state of (digital) (knowledge) (management) discourse. Whether digital-, information-, knowledge-, knowledge management-, or management-related, much of the writing and “latest thinking” in industry and professional practice is characterized by – at best – ill-defined and confusing words or – at worst — meaningless hype. “Mind your words!” my mother advised me. I try to remember her timeless advice.

I was extremely fortunate to have studied at the University of Bath with its faculty from the Center for Research in Strategic Purchasing and Supply (CRiSPS). The British are very exacting in terms of their English language usage. Americans are lax. “Two nations separated by a common language” George Bernard Shaw is quoted as saying. After studying in Britain I learned to be careful in my word choices, more precise in my writing, and more rigorous in my definitions (preferring those taken from peer-reviewed academic / research’ publications). Mom apparently knew that ages ago. “Say what you mean, mean what you say, and don’t say it in a mean way” she admonished me. Mom saved me from many potential (and career-ending) email disasters.

Value. Value-add. Value-driven. Value creation. Value chains. Value propositions. I hear speakers frequently use these terms at seminars / workshops and in the popular business press. Whose value? What is value? Says who? Where’s the proof? (Perhaps I should write, “Where’s the beef?” based on the popular American television commercial for a burger chain.)

Too pedantic? Overly academic? Merely semantic? I think not. Why do we do the things we do – or recommend them to others – if not to create value? But whose value? Customer value? Supplier value? Stakeholder value? Production value? Information / knowledge value? Even if we sidestep the above argument and only use financial / economic value, multiple questions confront us: Which country’s accounting standards? Purchase cost? Activity-based costing? Replacement cost? Market price? “Total cost of ownership?” Which economic school/theory do we use? Labor-based? Resource / competence-based? Utility / preference-based? Exchange-based? Transaction-cost based? Mazzucato (2018) presents the problem clearly in her award-winning book The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy where she recounts the shifting boundaries of “value” over the years.

I am excited that my abstract entitled Value-added Knowledge Management (KM): Whose value anyway? was selected for submission as a research paper for the 20th European Conference on Knowledge Management (ECKM 2019) 5-6 September 2019 in Lisbon. The paper will use my PhD research from the University of Bath to contextualize two commonly referenced knowledge frameworks — SECI and DIKAR — in terms of value. I’d welcome having conversations on the subject of value with fellow knowledge researchers, academics, thought leaders, consultants and practitioners.

Kindly email me at andrew.swan@columbia.edu. I’m passionate about advancing our understanding of the intersection of value, value chains and value management.