Forecast Revisit: Free Knowledge, Click Here

The natural evolution of information on the Web will move toward greater quality, reliability and transparency. This will not happen because gatekeepers do a better job of controlling the content of websites; rather it will be because the ease of finding, sharing and linking good information is setting a higher bar for everyone.

This forecast and explanation dates from an October 2008 blog post to the Signature Insights blog.  More than five years later, let’s see how the association community is faring against this 2008 forecast. Our 2014 update and commentary appears in italics.

For profit and association publishers have been on edge in recent years because the Web makes so much information available free. This is still a top concern in 2014 for many associations. Some have reconciled themselves that they can continue to earn their subscription and member revenues by filtering information for a fee. It will be much harder to stay ahead of the Web’s fast evolution from vast information resource to reliable knowledge. This challenge is largely responsible for the strategic conversations we see today about content strategy and business models. How do associations provide value in 2014?

There are plenty of indicators of this evolution in quality from information to knowledge:

  • While amateurs turned bloggers get much of the attention, there is probably an equally large universe of consultants, academics and other experts willing to share their knowledge in this medium. Since it is easy to do, these knowledge workers have turned to the Web to increase their social capital in a knowledge economy. Thought leadership and content marketing are driving many marketing strategies; even companies selling tangible products and services are also repositioning themselves as knowledge sources. The quality of this content continues to improve.  Now many associations are finding ways to take the best of what their “partners” are producing and share it with members; the shift is from perceived competition to collaboration with everyone as winners. 

  • Communities of practice are taking advantage of shared knowledge repositories like wikis to work toward a better informed understanding of their work. People often cite the policing and quick updating aspects of Wikipedia as the reason for its quality as a reference; however, the real force for quality is any community’s enhanced ability to learn together, just as it would in a face-to-face dialogue. Wikis have proved to be too static and too much work for association volunteers to become a popular platform.  However, look at how vigorously many communities of practice use Twitter, LinkedIn, listservs and private communities to refer people to relevant information. Hash tags and other tagging systems are attempts to automate community curation.

  • The prevalence of identity-finding tools like social networking and personal websites make it much easier to vet the expertise of any author or contributor. And the growth of review and rating systems will in time reward newcomers for their novel and groundbreaking perspectives.  Peer review and rating systems don’t seem to have gained the acceptance we anticipated in 2008; still you do see widespread adoption of "like" ratings. 

  • With the ease of hyperlinking and bookmarking, anyone with a passion for sharing knowledge can build a valuable resource for others to use. Textbooks and scholarly works have always rested on their bibliographies. Tomorrow’s online learning and e-books will do an even better job of moving seamlessly from synthesis overview into the source material. The referrals in  listservs, private communities, Twitter and LinkedIn as well as the rise of Zite, Flipboard and custom aggregators are taking great advantage of these capabilities. MOOCs rely on this capability to make great content available anywhere in the world to provide quality online learning experiences; associations are trying to be fast followers.

None of this has to be cause for despair for the knowledge aggregators who need revenue to support their knowledge business models. If these capabilities are the new standards for knowledge, for profit and association publishers just need to be the early adopters and co-opt the best expertise and experiences emerging in these alternative Web publishing worlds.

That was the advice in 2008; all that is needed to revise this forecast is to  replace the term aggregators with curators because quality is understood to be better than quantity; and to  expand our thinking beyond “alternative Web publishing worlds” to all the ways that knowledge and learning are converging in multiple platforms. Associations are thinking content first, then making good use of different media to reach multiple needs and audiences in innovative ways.