The ‘always-beta’ culture is affecting more than just journalism

always in betaMichael Arrington, one if the world’s most successful bloggers, writes about the latest battle he’s had against the mainstream media. He quotes the progressive journalism thinker Jeff Jarvis who identifies the conflict as a difference between “process” and “product” journalism. This is a brilliant step forward in understanding the evolution of the news media (highly recommend you read both posts), and to validate it, I will share how this very fact is true in other domains (specifically, web2.0 in the enterprise).

How I sold the idea of a wiki at PwC
In 2006, I pitched to senior management at my firm – the world’s largest knowledge firm – that we were failing at how we did knowledge. More specifically, I argued that the systems in place was creating opportunity cost, because the way we viewed “knowledge” was wrong – and the systems we had only supported one type. As a solution, I proposed we implement Web2.0 tools as a way of changing this.

What I want to share more of however, is the actual problem I identified. It was a problem that senior management knew existed but in different words. What I did was give the intellectual justification that created the “ah-ha” moment.

Soft knowledge versus hard knowledge
Central to my thesis was that knowledge had a continuum, and that we have traditionally said knowledge was a product only. The physical output of knowledge in the industrial society has been some published form like a book or a magazine. This output therefore defined the perspective of this product – multiple reviews of the content, close scrutiny of what was being said, and careful consideration of what made the final cut. It was expensive to create a book, and so quite reasonably, we’ve aimed at making it perfect.

However most knowledge within a firm doesn’t exist in a published form. When we talk about sharing knowledge within organisations, we are actually actually referring to having people talk to each other. Human conversation is the most established type of human knowledge transfer, and until the alphabet was adopted by various cultures, was the only way knowledge could be transmitted. This is called “soft knowledge”, and it’s not better or worse than “hard” knowledge, but just a different state on the continuum.

tree roots

Soft knowledge rapidly evolves. It never has a fixed state. Sometimes, it never ever makes it up the line to become “hard” knowledge, or solidified – but this doesn’t make it useless. In fact, when it comes to doing our work, this tacit knowledge doesn’t need a fixed state – it’s a fluid piece of knowledge that will never justify it being published in a hard-bound book. Like a dynamic conversation between a group of people, the ideas are rapidly evolving so fast that trying to lock it down actually ruins the process. Soft knowledge is not so much a product but a process – like rapidly firing electrons remixing towards the goal of a more solid state.

The ‘always-beta’ culture
Technology is enabling us to evolve our ability to communicate. Its gone beyond a one-to-one and one-to-many model that we’ve traditionally been accustomed to, but now allowing a many-to-many model. This new form of communication is allowing knowledge to get better captured in this ‘soft’ state. Categories are no longer useful, even though as a society hierarchies and linearity is how we are accustomed to the world. We need to now become more adapt at analysing knowledge through a network.

When it comes to information (including the news), the value comes not from its accuracy but its availability. If I have an emergency situation on a client, I want all the available options for me to assist in my decision making. As a professional, I can then assess what route to take. Although pre-certification of knowledge has value in accuracy, sometimes full accuracy results in a bigger opportunity cost: inaction.

crushing waves

There will always be a place for news as a product. But what we need right now is to understand blogs do news differently, and potentially for news itself, might be a better model. And whether you like it or not, it’s worked before- after all, we’ve been doing conversation now for close to a 100,000 years. If we never did it, we’d never end up to where we are now.

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