Who Owns Knowledge?

When a marketing research company collects information about a company's customers and then uses the data in the aggregate to draw conclusions about the industry, it must be careful when it tries to benefit from the expertise that flows from that knowledge.

Veteran researcher Thomas T. Semon, in a recent article in the American Marketing Association's Marketing News, used a bank as an example in an article about information ownership. He pointed out that, in the process of serving customers, a bank must collect personal transaction data about their customers and that customers implicitly agree to let the bank do so. In Semon's view, the bank's role is that of a steward, where usage of that information is limited to serving the customers needs. When the bank analyzes its accounts to build aggregate databases to model future customer behavior for building new products, the general thinking is that because the bank paid for that analysis, the bank owns the information. But, what about the knowledge that comes from any research? Clearly the bank owns the knowledge, too. Or do they?

The tricky thing about knowledge is that it exists, travels and thrives in people. At the bank, the VP or Director who retains such knowledge and is capable of using it to make good strategic business decisions is often compensated relative to their knowledge base and their ability to use it. In the current job market, it is not uncommon for that bank executive to have worked at several banks throughout their career and to have picked up bits and pieces of knowledge from each along the way.�

A marketing research company works in much the same way as the bank employee example above. If a marketing research company is partnered with a company to handle not just data collection, but survey analysis and reporting (delivering information and knowledge gleaned during the survey process), they will undoubtedly retain a portion of the knowledge coming out of the analysis. As with the bank employee, there are both explicit and implicit agreements in place regarding how that knowledge can be used, and how closely those agreements are followed is often at the discretion of the individual, the company, or a court of law.

An interesting conundrum develops, though. Most prospective companies looking for marketing research suppliers ask for relevant industry experience (knowledge). This knowledge would have likely been acquired by doing research with their direct or perhaps indirect competitive set, and their question is simple ... have you gained knowledge there that you can apply here? In many industries, that knowledge is critical to the success of a research program, so it is certainly a valid question.�

If a marketing research company ends up leveraging that knowledge in the relationship, likely charging extra for that expertise, they are acting in a similar fashion as the bank employee example above. Does the marketing research company have the right to charge a premium for knowledge gained in such a way? Is it ethical? Whether it is right or fair is debatable, but the relationships formed between employees and companies and companies and their marketing research suppliers are certainly interesting and complex.�

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