Monday, 30 November 2015

The Pickle Problem - applying market economics to knowledge sharing and collaboration

I'm a fan of National Public Radio's podcast 'Planet Money'. Last week they ran a 15 minute episode on how the distribution of produce donated to food banks in the US was transformed by an ingenious market solution. By the way, that's an economic market, not a produce market. 
The issue was illustrated by the need to get fresh fruit and veg to Alaskan food banks, when the perception was that long-distance chilled transportation was problematic. Hence an abundance of pickles in Alaskan food banks and an oversupply of potatoes in Idaho.

A centralized distribution network across charities had been set-up but, as with many centrally planned economies, was inefficient, slow and lacked local knowledge. The solution, described in this excellent podcast, was of the creation of 'Feeding America's economic trading market in both food and logistic solutions. The design, based on a kind of eBay, uses 'fake money' or shares, distributed for free to all food banks. They can spend this on donated produce or trade to move donations that are an over-supply or not needed at that place or time. You know that little buzz you get when you win an item on eBay; apparently participants get that when they 'win' a truckload of peanut butter (long shelf-life, not fragile, high in protein and kids love it).
It is an elegant, efficient and despite many doubters, very successful system. Not only that, but it connected many different people involved in food banks, produce production, supply and logistics. An unintended outcome was the creation of a Feeding America knowledge bank as well an efficient food distribution system.
'Knowledge markets' within large organisations tend to rely on 'if we build it, they will come', tech platforms or altruism. Could a free-market economy of the kind tried and tested in Feeding America's program, apply to knowledge sharing and learning lessons in large organisations and other networks? Could 'knowledge shares' be used as behavioural economics to incentivise collaboration? I'm acutely aware of unintended consequences, such as hoarding or gaming the system. These were uppermost in the system designed for Feeding America, but who would have thought that applying free-market economics to a charitable social enterprise would work? I'm co-facilitating the KIN Workshop 'Knowledge in Action' tomorrow which will focus on behavioural economics; I hope we have the chance to explore this idea. Do you know of organizations or networks that have tried applying market-forces to knowledge sharing?
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