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Let's Continue to Beat up on KnowNow! Posted on 06/30/2001.

Doc offers up a smart post titled "Silence is Leaden,", discussing the foolishness of "trade secrets." He cites Be, Transmeta, and, yes, KnowNow as victims of this approach. What's interesting about KnowNow's decision was that when the company first launched, they had a couple of white papers posted about the "Two-Way Web," probably because it's founders were scholars and academics, and as such were used to sharing knowledge. Around the time they landed the KP funding, the white papers came down and the stealth mode shield went up... likely on KP's insistence (which would be more bad advice!). And, as Doc points out, stealth mode squashes discussion, which means your message doesn't get out. In KnowNow's instance, it allowed Bang Networks and Juice to steal their thunder.

Another worthwhile datapoint in this discussion is the now-defunct Interval Research. Paul Allen's R&D think tank was supposed to be a more business-savvy Xerox PARC--they wouldn't let the fruits of their labor drift away like PARC did. Their approach, though, was of a walled-off fort--no one knew what the folks there were working on. I suppose this was so their precious 'trade secrets' didn't make their way into others' hands. As is pointed out in this Wired article on Interval from December 1999:

The lab has also been resolutely private. On the day it opened its doors, it closed them, wrapping itself in a cloud of secrecy. Even outside scientists who collaborate with Interval's researchers typically remain in the dark. "I've been visiting Interval since it opened," says Jim Crutchfield, a physicist at the Santa Fe Institute who has worked with Rob Shaw, "and I still have no idea what it does."
However, the nature of such research requires openness, and Interval simply became increasingly irrelevant (and, seemingly, increasingly out-of-touch with technology trends outside their walls). Just think about it--elsewhere, researchers were attending conferences, publishing on the Web, getting the word out, and Interval's were huddled in their labs, keeping mum. Ideas grow through conversation, and Interval's approach stifled that.

Towards the end, Interval made a last-gasp effort of opening the kimono (as that Wired article points out), but it was too little, too late.

More personally, I've seen colleagues in information architecture and interaction design claim that their processes and documents are "trade secrets." As if they have some special sauce no one else has figured out. If you think this, you're wrong. As an independent, I worked in a number of different environments, and I can comfortably say everyone approaches problems pretty much the same way. I become quite upset by the trade-secrets sentiment because our nascent field will succeed only through the liberal discussion of ideas and methods, wherein I hear someone say, "We tried this," and I could respond, "Well, I've tried that, and, hey, what would happen if we used elements A, B, C of your approach, and D, E, F of mine?" Companies worried about protecting trade secrets are simply showing up their lack of confidence in their abilities--anyone whom I know who is any good doesn't worry sharing their methods and approach, because they know that the real value is in the execution, which can't be copied.

10 comments so far. Add a comment.

Previous entry: "KnowNothing."
Next entry: "You Say Interactive, I Say Industrial..."


No special sauce, everyone is equal? Hmmm...

Are all bands equal? They do their work out in the open, where ideas can be grabbed by others, after all. Well, no, some bands are arguably much better than others. And they're better than the band members by themselves, after the original group breaks up.

I think the right people working on the right thing can and do create special sauce, and keeping prying eyes out of the kitchen could well make the difference between successful completion of a valuable concept, and premature distribution and dissipation.

Just my first pass through your argument with Occam's razor...
Posted by Tom von Alten @ 06/30/2001 12:12 PM PST [link to this comment]

I'm not saying everyone is equal. That's the whole point of my last sentence. That *people* are the special sauce, not processes/"trade secrets"/whathaveyou. I think you made my point better than I did!
Posted by peterme @ 06/30/2001 01:26 PM PST [link to this comment]

In the fall of 1999 I intervieed with Interval for a position on a project that would had knocked Napster for a loop, and maded the RIAA get religion about online music. That project was scuttled, along with other cool end user tech when Interval folded.

It's a pity that fear got the best of them.
Posted by Bill Humphries @ 06/30/2001 02:46 PM PST [link to this comment]

Secret Sauce sells. In the world I work in, clients want me to have some special "proprietary" method that will work miracles. Sometimes they're not so happy when I tell them I teach the same stuff in my publically available community college course...they don't feel like they're getting the real deal.

So how do you sell execution - past performance is good, but I've seen folks with great looking past references who just aren't up to it, and folks who are lower profile who have been stellar.


Posted by Jess @ 06/30/2001 10:11 PM PST [link to this comment]

My experience suggests that "Secret Sauce" sells only to the naive. At Adaptive Path, we've explicitly stated we don't have a trade-marked proprietary methodology, and it's helped us win bids. We let clients know that we have a toolkit from which we draw upon to create a solution specific to their needs--not that we use some four-step process that solves all problems.

You sell execution through case studies and work you can point to.
Posted by peterme @ 07/01/2001 09:16 AM PST [link to this comment]

Well, I'm typically a big believer in open-sourcing just about everything--

But let's say someone came up with the toolkit system about a year ago, and mentioned it to others, thinking it was just a better way to do things. Then, in the present this person suddenly discovers that the direct competitors are using that same methodolgy to win clients when they are bidding against each other. If the innovator had kept silent, it might have been a differenciator. But because the innovator believed in sharing ideas, now there is less of an edge to be had.

And let's say the market has suddenly become cutthroat, and there is quite less work to be had. In the days of an excess of jobs, sharing ideas to promote the discipline seemed wonderful to do-- everyone could do better work and there was so much work available. But when there are three firms for every one job... suddenly every edge counts.

I've never believed in the secret sauce, but genuine innovation does happen, and maybe sometimes it's better not to share it. At least not until it's followed by a string of tm's and r's.
Posted by shark @ 07/01/2001 10:34 AM PST [link to this comment]

I think issues around whether/how sharing methodology/process results in proprietary info. being divulged are missing in this discussion. In my experience as a consultant I didn't find that there were as many issues around secret sauce in IA methodology(although I agree that people do like to think they're paying the big bucks for something unique and that the naive look for that in process while more sophisticated clients look for that in experience) as around proprietary information being released in the process of us sharing IA deliverables. It can be very hard to talk about methodology and process without showing examples and results--and often when they've been "dumbed down" enough to limit proprietary information they become pretty pathetic. I'm not sure how much credence these concerns should garner--once a project has been launched the IA is basically "visible" for all to see; on the other hand (though not with intranet work). In the most extreme cases I had clients where I was forbidden to say I had worked with them at all, much less show results of that work. Maybe we need to consider how we can best talk about IA process and methodology in interesting ways without compromising our client's (or our companies) policies/demands around propietary information.
Posted by Samantha Bailey @ 07/01/2001 06:52 PM PST [link to this comment]

In reply to Jeff's puzzlement I would cite Screenwriter William Goldman's famous take on the the movers and shakers of moviedom, "NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING." Every film start, like every startup company, is a new roll of the dice. Of course there are odds, favorable and un-, but those odds change with each now roll. So what's a poor gambler to do?

My personal take on the subject is that thinking you know something is a good time to move on to something else. Expertise is not an element of the creative process. Just the opposite; it is the need to discover and to understand something new that is the Zappa of Invention.

And have you noticed: experts are usually more concerned with proving the superiority of their secret sauce by argument than by tasting.
Posted by B.J. @ 07/03/2001 06:04 PM PST [link to this comment]

If you're all not secretative, where are all of Adaptive Path's working documents, templates, guides? How come they're not available for the world?

Everyone talks about open source but IAs are notoriously stingy about sharing their stuff. Point to one place on the web where you can find high quality guides and templates from professional designers.
Posted by Socrates M @ 07/11/2001 03:07 PM PST [link to this comment]

hot dang socrates, calm down. remember that adaptive path is all of 4 months old. we're working on a number of different things, among them ways of sharing our knowledge with others. we're starting down this path with many different conference appearance, which are pointed to on our home page. Yes, it costs money, etc., but we're going to spill all of our beans.
Posted by peterme @ 07/11/2001 03:57 PM PST [link to this comment]

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