knowledge economy, it was inevitable that big companies would spend lots of money on complex knowledge management systems. Most of those investment had very poor returns, because they were based on old command and control styles of management and that is not how knowledge workers operate; since the Internet gave us the power, we are all cats.After Peter Drucker told us in 1966 that we were becoming a
Modern knowledge management is all about herding cats. Ever tried telling a cat what to do? Even “kitty, kitty, kitty” calls are pretty ineffective. A bowl of milk is better. Google’s recently released Knol service shows that they understand this.
Knowledge cats typically want three things:
- Attention (which may lead to more money or just goodwill).
- Feel good about your contribution to the world’s knowledge.
It may seem a tad mercenary to put them in that order, but that simply reflects Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
Look at how the existing alternatives to Knol score on these three criteria:
- Wikipedia. Useless on 1 and 2, great on 3. Wikipedia has been a phenomenal success story and most commentators put Knols as a Wikipedia competitor. I appreciate the irony of using Wikipedia for almost all the background links for this post, including the one on Knol; that was not deliberate, they were just the best sources that appeared from a Google search. Wikipedia will continue to thrive in genuine long tail stuff, where there really is not any economic value but just the passion of a few people to set the record straight.
- Wikia. This is on much more dangerous ground. Contributing your time to Wikipedia for the good of the world is OK as nobody is raking in the $$$ from your efforts. The idea of seeing the Wikia founders and VCs on front cover of Fortune all based on your efforts…. My prediction is that Wikia will be absorbed into Amazon; they are already investors and have the most to lose from a Google monoculture.
- Mahalo. They claim to have enough capital to last over 4 years without making a profit, so it will be a long time before we see how effective this is. They do pay contributors (either salary or per contribution) so they score OK on 1 and 3. They show who created the content and who contributed; but this is bottom of the page and not prominent. The attention branding is for Mahalo and not for the author. I am a skeptic on Mahalo. They are going for the fat part of the tail. That is the province of specialist publishers (who can figure out how to get some user generated content).
These different attempts all matter, because they are one of the best routes to the more structured Web that is sometimes labeled Web 3.0 or Semantic Web.
Just for fun, here is my definition of Web 3.0:
“The combination of Web 2.0 mass collaboration with structured databases”.
Or as Jeremy Liew of Lightspeed Ventures calls it, “meaning = data + structure“.
That is simple to say - and incredibly hard to pull off technically. There are two things that are relatively easy:
1. Getting lots of people to contribute unstructured information for free - comments, forums, blogs, etc.
2. Getting lots of people to input data into forms where the structure is already defined in a relational database.
Two things are incredibly hard:
1. Getting computers to understand semantics/structure in unstructured text. This has been the aim of natural language search for a very long time. Lots of very smart firms such as Hakia and Powerset are investing a lot of money to get there, but on the evolutionary scale they look like the earliest life forms in the primordial soup compared to humans.
2. Getting a lot of humans without any technical training in SQL or data modelling to create structure “on the fly”, to let structure “emerge” from lots of input through some form of “collaborative data modelling”. It looks like Freebase is attempting something along these lines, although since their March announcement it has been very quiet so that is hard to say. Freebase looks like a really long play, potentially huge and game changing but not any time soon. Because this stuff is hard.
Google Knol looks like an intelligent way to motivate lots of people to add the structure that is needed.
Knol functionality is not hard to replicate. The barrier to entry for a competitor is low. The big question is whether Google will tweak their search algorithms to favor a Knol entry over any other content. I don’t believe they will do this. Firstly because they are riding high and don’t need to resort to such grubby tactics and secondly because that would trigger some serious Anti-Trust action.
The most likely source of a Knol competitor, IMHO, would be a plug-in for Wordpress MU. But that, as the saying goes, is another story.
Cat image: phantom kitty