Sunday, 15 April 2012

The "WE" Individuals of the Digital Era

Bee hive photo
'Bee hive 2' by Botters
under a CC license
Knowledge has always been a valuable thing. A lot of resources are invested in getting it, being studies or just hiring the right people. And there are tools available to transmit it (books, schools, the media, etc.) as well as the means to protect it (intellectual property laws, non-disclosure agreements, information concealing technologies, etc.).

Information technologies have considerably changed the knowledge landscape, though. Information tends to be better distributed or - at least - more accessible. With a bit of exaggeration, one could support that it is getting increasingly easier to become "an expert" on something.

As usual, however, there is a catch. Well, in fact, many catches:
 Reliability; Accuracy;Suitability;Completeness... and that is just to name a few.

The interesting point is that those same catches also apply to several of the traditional means of knowledge dissemination, such as books. The difference, however, is that the perception of reliability, accuracy, etc., of what we find online tends to be favourably biased. I don't know why. Maybe because when we look something up on the internet we want to get somewhere quickly and easily.

The bottom line is that the people of the digital era are no longer isolated knowledge-islands but, rather, autonomous nodes of a network: they have access to "collective knowledge" and, sometimes, contribute to it. Individuals are (digitally) backed up by many others, although the process often happens unconsciously, well hidden in the background.

At any rate, in the modern business world, that brings up to the scene some new facts.

Firstly, the "layman" should now be considered as one with access to a lot of information, possibly unfiltered, possibly biased, possibly incomprehensible to him/ her, maybe even wrong but, at any rate, information.

Secondly, the expectations from an "expert" should now be somewhat different: having some knowledge on his/ her field is just not enough anymore. Experts should be able to go much beyond the layman of today and considerably beyond the well-informed professional that hires him/ her.

I have the feeling that we are now in a transitional period, where the new and old types of common people/ experts co-exist. Understandably, that leads to confusion, especially when our expectations of the others are not matched in reality.

Daniel Gulati, a New York entrepreneur, has gone as far as to advise us: "Beware of the everyday expert" in his article in Harvard Business Review. I understand his concerns. But, on the brighter side of things, today, business people may be able to do much more on their own than what was normally possible a few years ago. That is particularly helpful for entrepreneurs, I guess, although the audience they are addressing has also become more demanding.

To me, the real challenge is how we use this potential to make our lives better, at the professional but also at the personal (societal) level.

P.S. (1) And, just to be fair, a lot of focus has been falling lately on the  knowledge-based economy and the society of knowledge. The niche of this post is really tiny and has to do with everyday people in their everyday lives. In other words, please don't extrapolate to the world economy level :-)

P.S. (2) Just because we have access to information that many others have provided, we are not necessarily less "individual" than we used to. No, we haven't reached the Borg stage, yet. Surely, many people will feel handicapped if google (or bing) goes offline but it's the access to information that will be what they'll be missing, not the people behind it :-)

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