ATD Blog

Intellectual Capital: An Introduction for Senior Leaders

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


As a consultant in the talent management industry for more than 40 years, I have learned a lot about working with senior leaders who are focused on learning and development. Indeed, I have had the good fortune to be a founder, owner, leader, and individual contributor to eight different business entities in this space. In addition, over the last 10 years, I have parlayed this experience into advisory board seats and strategic growth planning for some 20 different talent development consulting firms. My firms also have developed learning systems for many of the industry’s leading suppliers, as well as worked with well-known authors to convert their content into learning and development programs.

I share this background as a way to verify my insight into how the talent development industry operates–from both sellers’ and buyers’ perspectives.

Let’s Focus on Intellectual Capital

Recently, I presented a webinar to members of the Instructional Systems Association, comprised of nearly 75 learning providers, on the subject of intellectual capital. While supplier issues are somewhat different than those of client and user organizations,  there are many readily transferrable concepts and challenges. In fact, many talent development functions within corporations conduct themselves like internal consultancies, and those that are profit centers face many of the same challenges as external suppliers.

Learning leaders are confronted by intellectual capital issues in a number of different ways. For instance, CLOs might be asked to address such questions as:  

  • What exactly is intellectual property (IP)?
  • Is there a difference between intellectual capital (IC) and IP?
  • How do they relate to the business of learning?
  • What rights should L&D own, and how do we use them?
  • How can I develop and leverage IP or IC for the benefit of my organization?
  • How do I evaluate the originality of the IP presented to me by suppliers with whom I work?
  • What are the legal issues and exposures I need to understand in order to effectively manage IP or IC?

My goal with this blog series is to present many of these issues, especially as they relate to learning and talent development, so the community can share its collective wisdom with each other. The plan is to focus six to seven blog articles on the topics of IC and IP that will stimulate a dialogue and help leaders gain greater insight on how to best develop, leverage, and create value with your organization’s or suppliers’ intellectual capital and intellectual property by:

  • understanding the differences between IC and IP
  • determining ways to develop and evaluate your own IC
  • providing examples of IC in the talent development industry.
  • understanding the legal liabilities inherent is dealing with IC
  • discussing business strategies that can best leverage your IC. 

With this as a brief background, let’s start with a simple true-or false quiz. Simply respond to each of the items below as to whether you think it is true-or-false (please, no “not sure” answers).

  • Content is no longer king.

  • The customer/end-user experience separates the average from the great learning systems in the talent development industry, regardless of their inherent intellectual capital or intellectual property.

  • Your learning organization’s intellectual capital is ultimately more valuable than its intellectual property.

  • There is very little new in the last 50 years in talent development other than applying technology to delivery.

  • Almost every concept in the talent development industry is simply recycled, perhaps with only a slightly different “skin,” over and over again from generation to generation.

  • Putting two or more learning functions with different intellectual capital together does not usually add to the offer of either.

  • Widespread distribution of your programming is more important to the long-term sustainable growth of your organization’s talent development business than the intellectual property of your programs.

  • There are strict rules and regulations about how much external Intellectual Property you can use for internal purposes within your organization.

What do you think? How many of these statements do you think are true? If you said ALL of them, I would agree with you. At least, that is my opinion from my industry experience and observations, realizing these statements are not based on extensive research.

Perhaps, though, this quiz was a little unfair as we haven’t yet described IC and IP.  In future blog posts, not only will we do this. More importantly, we will explore why all of these statements are more likely true than false and their implication on L&D’s ability to achieve specific business results. I look forward to the dialogue.

To make sure you receive the next installment of the blog series, sign up for the ATD Senior Leaders and Executives Community of Practice newsletter. 

About the Author

Steve Cohen is founder and principal of the Strategic Leadership Collaborative, a private consulting practice focused on business strategy and development. A 40+ year veteran of the talent development industry, largely on the supplier side, he has demonstrated a proven track record for building equity by growing top and bottom-line performance for eight different consulting enterprises in the education and training industry he has either founded and/or led. He has been called on to consult with numerous firms needing strategic planning guidance, business coaching, and board advisory services.

His first book, The Complete Guide to Building and Growing a Talent Development Firm, was published by ATD in 2017. His recent follow-up, 12 Winning Strategies for Building a Talent Development Firm is now available on Amazon.

He can be reached at: 952.942.7291 or [email protected].

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