Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Valuing the Invaluable

A rocky stream in the U.S. state of Hawaii.

There are just three letters that differentiate 'economist' from 'ecologist'.
A fascinating debate has been sparked by the UK Government's announcement that the natural environment is to be given a cash value through the NEA UK National Ecosystem Assessment .  The intention is to help assess the true environmental cost of a farmer ploughing up a wood or the value to the NHS of living close to green spaces and clean air. The hope is that by placing a £ $ € value, natural resources will be better appreciated and stewarded. Skeptics fear however that you simply cannot put a price on an intangible such as a pleasant view or fresh air.  The BBC has reported extensively over the last month on 'putting a price on nature'.

What's this to do with organisational learning? Well I've often thought that an organisation can be viewed as an ecosystem. It has tangible assets such as premises and stock and intangible assets such as know-how and expertise (social capital). The former are easy to value, the latter more tricky. Perhaps there is a lesson for us in whether valuing intangible natural assets such as a bluebell wood vista, makes us appreciate it more and want to invest in its upkeep as an 'asset'.

Depending on how successful the NEA programme is, perhaps we can use this as an analogy to value communities of practice and other organisational learning processes and tools. When shareholders insist that these 'intellectual assets' are managed as well as capital assets, we will have made a real breakthrough.

Whether a gurgling brook or a knowledge retention process, it will be interesting to see how valuation pans out and whether there are unintended consequences.

Photo credit: Wikipedia
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