I’ve been blacklisted. By a KM conference company. For the sake of anyonymity, let’s call them the VECK Corporation (standing for Very Expensive Conferences on KM). Now that doesn’t just mean I will never ever be invited to speak or appear at their conferences. It means I will never ever even receive their marketing information about their events. Ever again.
I kind of suspected it already. After all, when you’re indundated by VECK marketing collateral every other week and then the flow suddenly stops, but their events do not, you do notice. And it’s been a couple of years now that I have been seeing their literature on other people’s desks, and not my own. But a couple of weeks ago, I received a curious call that confirmed my suspicions.
The call was from VECK’s new conference sales manager. Let’s call him Jeremy. He was new in town, and had been networking and making contacts among the KM scene here. One of his contacts had mentioned my name, so here he was, cheerily following up on the connection. In our opening pleasantries, I asked him how his boss was. “Oh, you know her?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied, “we have quite a history. You should ask her about me.”
He paused, and started tapping on his keyboard. “Oh yes” he said, “You’re in our database. I should have checked that first.” He paused again. If you have ever wondered whether it’s possible to hear the blood draining out of someone’s face, I can attest to it. He continued, “You’re in our database. It says DO NOT CONTACT. Mr Lambe, is it ok if this conversation never happened?”
“You should talk to ___ and get the background” I suggested, partly amused, and partly trying to be helpful. “Oh no, I don’t think I’ll do that. More than my job’s worth. Goodbye.” There must have been something else written against my name in the database.
Now this would probably never progress beyond a slightly ego boosting anecdote for KM cocktail parties, if it were not that I’ve just finished reading Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist. It was the first time that I’ve seen the power of information and transparency being linked so clearly to how businesses and economies work. Information transparency allows competition, it allows price comparison, and it allows fair pricing. Scarcity of information promotes poor competition, lower price sensitivity, and as the old folks used to say, willingness to buy pigs in pokes, in other words, being prepared to pay a lot of money for something you are not really sure about.
KM has often been a pig in a poke. Conference companies make a business out of spreading information around – you would think. But conference companies also need to make money, and profits. And the best way to do that is to either exploit scarcity, or ignorance. There’s no scarcity of KM practitioners, so ignorance turns out to be the best way to go. How does that work?
Well, if you’re a conference company like VECK, what you must never do is tell your local market that they have local people who know anything about KM. Because who would pay extraordinarily high prices to listen to something really practical and simple from somebody in your own back yard? Yes, you can cultivate the locals a bit when you need introductions, and you probably have to invite a VIP or two to kick off your large conferences.
But by and large, the way global companies like VECK operate is by operating an elaborate system of musical chairs. You fly Australian and British practitioners into Singapore, American and British practitioners into Australia, American and Australian practitioners into the UK. And you know what? If you offer to pay them their air fares and hotel accommodation, most of them are so delighted to get free exposure that they won’t charge you any money for their time. If you charge $1500 per head for a two day workshop, any number above three or four participants is money in the bank.
Now clearly, markets and customers have their own way of acquiring information, so this model is sustainable only as long as you have a steady stream of uninformed people coming onto the market (who don’t know about locally-existing KM expertise to be had for free), and only as long as you can slow down their education. How do you do this? Well, you do a lot of direct marketing. You don’t do lots of public media marketing or engage in public conversations about your activities, because only in the private conversations can you assess and exploit your potential customer’s ignorance. You certainly don’t introduce your customers to each other until you’ve taken their money.
What has all this got to do with my black-listing? Well, I’ve been speculating, and this is how my speculation goes. A couple of years ago I was President of iKMS, a professional KM society set up to educate practitioners in KM, and connect them to each other. We advocated affordable access to practical knowledge about KM. We publicised the KM activities of practitioners in Singapore through free evening talks, almost-free workshops, and eventually a major conference offered at a fraction of the cost of major vendors like VECK.
In various heady moments, I may have suggested that VECK (among others) was overpriced. I may have suggested that they showcase more local KM knowledge rather than ignore it. I can understand that they didn’t like me. Or maybe they just figured, in a perfectly reasonable way, that if I didn’t like their offering, then there was no point their wasting their nice marketing collateral on me.
But of course, blacklisting people is not particularly sensible. They might blog about you, for a start. We live in such a well-networked, information-leaky environment, that ignorance cannot be imposed to preserve a competitive advantage. Not that I think VECK’s business is completely unsustainable. If they forget about the ignorance strategy and focus on scarcity – for example, making very high level gurus available where their fees, experience and reputations justify high prices – then they have a model that an informed market will appreciate. And to some extent they’ve been doing this.
But VECK’s fixation on ignorance is attempting to lock down their command of scarcity as well. Their latest policy is that when they fly anyone into Singapore for one of their events, that person is not permitted to undertake any additional meetings (unless the inviting party is willing to share the costs of bringing them in).
At face value it’s fair enough. But in practice, KM experts the world over are very well networked, and have contacts and colleagues wherever they go. And in most cases, the side invitation is not a competing commercial event, but an informal talk with groups of practitioners. It just seems petty – and very much against the spirit of KM – to impose such tight restrictions.
I’m glad to say that the KM market here is maturing nicely. The impossible economics of an ignorance model is showing in the numbers that VECK gets at its major conferences (going down). The promise of the scarcity model is showing in their continued presence in Singapore through smaller events with bigger names. But they do need to recognise that they can poison their access to scarcity – high level experts – by trying to cut their gurus off from the professional networks that sustain them. They need to be thinking less about blacklists and bans, and more about opening and feeding professional networks.
But it’s ok. I don’t mind being on their blacklist. It’s a wonderful story to be able to tell.
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