If you are a knowledge gatekeeper, the game is changing

"We take comfort from Charles Darwin's observation that it's not the strongest species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change. We just need to be adaptable." - Gary Pruitt, then the CEO of McClatchy Newspapers and now CEO of the Associated Press (http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2012/11/12/google_ad_revenue_tops_entire_us_print_media_industry_chart.html).

I recently spent some time looking into the stats for web content we were responsible for and noticed two things. The first was that the majority of visitors were viewing chunked versions of our books, where each individual web page aligned roughly with an entry in the table of contents. The second was that most visitors were spending only a couple of minutes reading the content in any given session.

This observation aligned very closely with my own information gathering process. Once or twice a year I'll make time to sit down and read a technical book from start to finish. This is usually because I am studying for a test or need to familiarise myself with a new technology. This compares to the dozens of web searches I do every single day to find answers to various issues that I run into as part of my daily job.

My productivity depends in large part on my ability to find answers to specific and usually isolated problems. I imagine a lot of information workers are in the same boat.

Right now the process of finding answers is to do a search in Google and then skim over the resulting links to try and find an answer. Or in other words, Googling.

The fact that Googling involves viewing the original content is very important to those that create, collate and profit from factual digital content (think wikis, knowledgebases, books, articles, blogs etc), because it means that they are the gatekeepers to their digital kingdoms. The answers people seek can be presented, restricted and sold in any way that best suits the knowledge gatekeepers.

If everything goes according to IBM’s plan, Watson will help kick off what CEO Ginni Rometty refers to as a third era in computing. The 19th century saw the rise of a “tabulating” era: the birth of machines designed to count. In the latter half of the 20th century, developers and scientists initiated the “programmable” era—resulting in PCs, mobile devices, and the Internet. The third (potential) era is “cognitive,” in which computers become adept at understanding and solving, in a very human way, some of society’s largest problems.

Knowledge is about to become commoditized. Since most people want answers to questions, this third era of computing is going to demote knowledge gatekeepers to funnels into systems like Watson. At best your original content will be presented as a footnote against the answer provided by Watson. At worst, no will will care where the answer came from, only that it is accurate.

Today it takes teams of highly skilled employees to create, curate, manage and navigate digital knowledge repositories designed to support vertical markets. Stick a support contract in front of that and you have the makings of a billion dollar business. In the not too distant future, some kid in a dorm room is going to be able to scrape every forum, wiki, book, bug report, chat log and code base that relates to your business or product, funnel it into a system like Watson, and produce a “Ask Watson” style web page that renders your once valuable digital knowledge repositories obsolete.
And if you think that your content is so engrained, valuable or unique as to be immune from disruption from this third era of computing, I have shares in Encyclopaedia Britannica, print based news media and bricks and mortar book shops that I would like to sell you.

Adaptation is the key to surviving the transition from valuable knowledge gatekeeper to anonymous information source. Because make no mistake, change is upon us right now, and history is littered with the corpses of business that missed the signs.
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