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“Our traditional system of knowledge was dictated by the limitations of paper. The fact that something fit between the covers of a book gave us a false sense of certainty. When experts filter and decide what goes into print or not, we lose many valuable details. The new system of knowledge opens our eyes to what’s really out there.”
David Weinberger, Harvard technology expert

The knowledge network

How Harvard technology expert David Weinberger views the future of work in the Web 2.0 space and its clouds, and the pioneering managers who deploy the Internet as an enterprise knowledge management tool.
David Weinberger
If you were to digitize all the printed works in the world – books, magazines, brochures, you name it, in over 1000 languages – you would need 200 million terabytes. But that wouldn’t be a problem. Because the global capacity to store data is over 1.5 million times larger than this. In fact, in 2011, experts estimated it to be around 1.8 zettabytes*.
The sheer volume of information available on the web is beyond our comprehension – a seemingly endless sea of data. But who is responsible for monitoring and ordering it to ensure that more than a tiny fraction is useful for businesses and other organizations, science and research institutes, networks and private individuals? Internet veteran David Weinberger is not only optimistic about problems likes this, he is positively euphoric: “The world is certainly too big to know, too filled with data and information for us to understand,” says the web specialist who has made a name for himself around the world with four books about the form and function of the knowledge economy. Reviewers from Germany’s Business Bestseller said of the Harvard academic’s ideas: “What may seem banal at first glance has far-reaching consequences for the way we do business, and collect, communicate and organize knowledge in the future.” To some, the title of his new book Too Big to Know may also seem banal, perhaps even a little resigned. But the New York-born business guru is actually proposing a solution to a problem: knowledge and experience develop their own network within the web and create their own order – more or less independently.
The 61-year-old’s central theory is as simple as it is revolutionary: to remain relevant today and tomorrow, knowledge management in companies and research institutions must open up. The more contact points it offers, the more scope the resulting dialogue has for enriching the content. “That’s how the Internet can generate a lot of value,” says Weinberger who, as one of the four authors of the Cluetain Manifest, foresaw trends, such as crowdsourcing, social media and conversational marketing as early as 1999.
And this is precisely why German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung named Weinberger one of the most eminent Internet pioneers, someone who describes how our view of knowledge, and with it our view of the world, is evolving. Weinberger seeks to redefine the concept of knowledge and of work in a connected world. “Our traditional system of knowledge was dictated by the limitations of paper. The fact that something fit between the covers of a book gave us a false sense of certainly. When experts filter and decide what goes into print or not, we lose many valuable details. The new system of knowledge opens our eyes to what’s really out there,” he remarks.
This new model is a vast repository of information that every user organizes and interacts with in line with their own social interests, perceptions and logic – while also influencing others. And this is true whether they are using the Internet for business or privately. “Suddenly there are no longer any deliberately set stopping points for inquiry or debate, since there’s always another link or comment to follow. That’s how knowledge develops from what appears to be a finished product into something that’s neither a product nor finished. Knowledge becomes a property of the network.” And it never stands still. The wealth of information we have access to at any one time is only ever a fleeting snapshot.

Perpetuating knowledge

“Companies that endorse this thinking can reap amazing insights and productivity gains,” says Weinberger. In many contexts, the search for the brightest mind will be replaced by the understanding that the only way to scale up intelligence is to seek and form knowledge networks – bright minds linked and in discourse. So success will depend on having the best-possible infrastructure to support network-based discussions. Weinberger firmly believes: “The net lets us learn and react faster. An organization that refuses will slow down to the point of becoming archaic.” And his theory is not just directed at c-levels but concerns each and
every employee. “The upcoming generation – digital natives with their trust in the power of the net and its clouds – is going to overcome companies’ reluctance to engage fully in the Internet. The normal fit now is for an employee to be out on the web building a network of people who also care about those things, and learning from it, no matter if they are employees or customers.”
Trust in the web and, above all, in the power of the community are two essential elements of the new knowledge society. “The issues of stability and security in the cloud are just technical questions. They can be solved. Hundreds of millions of people will no longer waste a thought on whether they’re storing their personal data in the likes of Facebook, Flickr and YouTube. The same is true for companies using and trusting the cloud,” says Weinberger as he peers into the future.
People’s growing trust in gleaning knowledge via the airwaves generates a new understanding of data protection and privacy: “We used to think in polarities – the public as opposed to the private.” But the Internet has not only blurred the boundaries between these two poles but added a new dimension: the social. Weinberger explains that if information increases in value as soon as it is shared and discussed with others, this social model will also become a benchmark for businesses. “Work that doesn’t open itself up to annotation, comments, augmentation, even disagreement, will be an irrelevant piece of knowledge. Even some of the most rigid and insular hierarchies, like the military and the intelligence services, are embracing social networks.”
But how do companies ensure that information, comments and criticisms are well-founded? According to Weinberger, better filters are the key – whether they are based on algorithms, or society where social networks highlight the relevant content. “The big difference is that modern filters we already use no longer remove or hide things from us, they don’t filter out but filter forward. All the material is still available, but it’s only a few more clicks away.” For the Harvard researcher, the development of new and better filters is “among the most invisible advances of the net in the past decade.”
*1 zettabyte (ZB) = 10²¹ bytes
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