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Your Knowledge Is Nothing If No One Else Knows You Know It

• October 02, 2013 • 4:15 PM

The Renaissance Center is the world headquarters of General Motors. (PHOTO: JAMES MARVIN PHELPS/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The problem with Dan Gilbert’s view of what’s killing the Motor City.

Downtown Detroit needs cash. But that’s only part of the problem. Billionaire Dan Gilbert lays out what is really killing Detroit:

“Most importantly, actually, for us here [the idea is] to keep these the talented graduates of Michigan State and Michigan and Wayne State, Eastern, and Western, all together down in the Motor City, versus leaving the state. That’s number one,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert may have good intentions, but his ideas about how to fix Detroit are outdated. Yes, both city and state need human capital. Policy analysts cite college educational attainment rates as a proxy for the knowledge production capacity of a workforce. Furthermore, a rise in this rate appears to generate a “talent dividend” in the form of a per capita income increase. Thus retention becomes an outcome instead of a means to an end. Plug the brain drain and problem is solved. Dan Gilbert has lost sight of what is important for Detroit and Michigan.

A second handicap dogging Gilbert’s efforts to revitalize Detroit concerns conventional talent management practices for businesses. I’ve been down this road before with a brief discussion about how non-compete agreements drag on innovation. Short version: Companies see talent as intellectual property. When an employee flees to another company, the investment in talent leaves with her. Everyone loses because there is no incentive to train people who will take their talent to another company. Brain drain kills innovation.

In that post about brain drain and innovation, I cited an article by Orly Lobel. I thought nothing of it at the time save I liked how she invoked the power of migration for innovation in 15th-century Florence. Innovation is dependent on knowledge transfer. Knowledge transfer is dependent on migration, such as the German pork butcher talent flow to England in the 19th century. Effective talent retention means no bangers with your mash. Brain drain spurs innovation. Turns out, Lobel is an expert in this sort thing:

The Latin proverb, Scire tuum nihil est, nisi te scire hoc sciat alter, reminds us that your knowledge is nothing if no one else knows you know it. Utopist cyber thinker Stewart Brand is famous for coining the phrase “information wants to be free.” When knowledge is embodied in people, the phrase is even more powerful: “talent wants to be free”. The effects of propertizing talent pools – human capital itself –can be detrimental. New field and experimental data about talent flows and growth, along with theoretical analysis, allows us to better understand why often resisting the impulses to turn human capital to property can yield far great innovation.

I’m linking to a draft of a paper. You have been warned. I’m not sure if this research found its way to journal publication. This discourse does inform a book, Talent Wants to Be Free: Why We Should Learn to Love Leaks, Raids, and Free Riding. Dan Gilbert is “propertizing” Michigan talent that wants to be free. As Lobel argues, mobility restriction hinders innovation.

Perhaps Newark Mayor Corey Booker’s quote of Charles Darwin can shake some sense into Gilbert: “It is the long history of humankind (& animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate most effectively have prevailed.”

Those who stay know the least about collaboration. Somebody nominate Dan Gilbert for the Darwin Awards.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

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