Organizations can learn an important lesson about the value of knowledge from four-star General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of U.S. and international forces in Afganistan. Essentially, knowledge has no value unless people who need it can access it–and the twist is that their needs are not predictable.TedTalk McChrystal

When General McChrystal  assumed leadership of a task force to fight al Qaeda in 2003, he operated under the military’s mandate that knowledge is power, should be kept secret and shared only on a need-to-know basis.

And yet, in a recently filmed TEDTalk, General McChrystal describes his journey—in the midst of complex, unconventional and bloody warfare—to understanding that knowledge has no power if it is not shared “with people who can do something with it.” In the video, general McChrystal says:

“…we had a sense that…it was important to keep information in the silos within the organization, particularly only give information to people who had a demonstrated need to know. But the question often came, who needed to know? Who needed, who had to have the information so that they could do the important parts of the job that you needed?”

Before he left Iraq, General McChrystal had created a new way to approach warfare that fused intelligence with operations. He had changed the culture of his unit to one where information, rather than being kept secret, became the “essential link” among its members.

Even when information is leaked that we’d prefer to keep secret as a result of this change, General McChrystal says that it is better and more powerful to share it than to lock it in a drawer where it has no value. “The fact that I know something has zero value if I’m not the person who can actually make something better because of it,” he says.

If a unit of the military which has at its core a fundamental belief in the secrecy of knowledge, can change its culture to share information more freely, how can our organizations, and how can we as individuals, change to share knowledge rather than locking it away in our brains or our IT systems, and what will be the impact?

Do you have a story about sharing knowledge that made you and your organization more powerful?