Why visualization is so important for intangible capital

July 27, 2010 by  

One of the big reasons that folks don’t do more explicit thinking about intangible capital is that they have no frameworks or mental models about IC.

We see this disconnect in a lot of businesses. Just about every manager knows that our economy has shifted. They know that knowledge is an important driver of their company’s success. But very few have a vision of how to operationalize this understanding. We believe that visualization is an important first step.

We have struggled with the need for a good visual model of intangible capital over the last decade. Many approaches in use today use diagrams and flow charts to show how all the components of IC work together. But the truth is that there is no one way model that describes every business. that knowledge intangibles are put together in a company. In our client work, our writing and speaking and our continued research, we often help our clients create their own models.

Why do we put so much emphasis on a model? Because models, drawings, graphics are an important aid to clear thinking. They are the visual corollary to stories, which are another powerful form of communication. Every businessperson today is so overwhelmed with data and information that they easily lose sight of the big picture. Visuals help them see it.

We actually used guides on visualization and communication in developing this book. Two books influenced us. The first, Made to Stick by Dan and Chip Heath, helped us come up with the ideas for the ten chapters in this book—breaking down the elements of intangible capital into digestible concepts and making the connection between each and its knowledge-era equivalent. The second, Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam, helped us think about how to represent the elements of intangible capital in a visual way, a journey that eventually led us to the family room of our house and the tub of Lego blocks belonging to our two sons.

We began using the Legos when we were struggling to come up with a way to model a client’s business. We started using the physical bricks. Then we discovered that Lego also has a free drawing tool so now we also create pictures of the models. We start with a knowledge inventory, similar to the one described in Chapter 2. We use a worksheet to assign each of the items on the inventory to one of the four different shapes we have picked to represent the three traditional kinds of intangible capital plus one for products. The only color that has meaning is gold—it is used for any knowledge or product for which a company gets paid. Then we put them all together.


There are a couple ways to approach this:

  • Start with competencies. Build the model from there, attaching processes to related competencies then adding relationships.
  • Start with your revenue (gold) blocks. Link these with the processes, competencies and relationships together in a way that illustrates how work gets done.

As we work, we try to link related assets directly together. For example, unionized workers (human capital) should be connected to the union (relationship capital) as well as the processes that they support (structural capital). A product needs to be linked with all the processes that are needed to produce and distribute it.

When you are starting out, we recommend that you don’t focus on the support services that each of the businesses have such IT and human resources. Each of these could be modeled as well. One situation where you might want to model support services is when you are doing extensive outsourcing, so that you are clear where the knowledge for that function is coming from.

Over the next few days, we’ll run some examples of models of specific businesses.

Adapted from Intangible Capital: Putting Knowledge to Work in the 21st Century Organization by Mary Adams and Michael Oleksak.

Enter Google AdSense Code Here