The Age of … Expertise?

Sarah O'Keefe / Opinion5 Comments

Over on O’Reilly’s Radar blog, Andy Oram has a fascinating article about the demise (!) of the Information Age and what will be next:

[T]he Information Age was surprisingly short. In an age of Wikipedia, powerful search engines, and forums loaded with insights from volunteers, information is truly becoming free (economically), and thus worth even less than agriculture or manufacturing. So what has replaced information as the source of value?The answer is expertise. Because most activities offering a good return on investment require some rule-breaking–some challenge to assumptions, some paradigm shift–everyone looks for experts who can manipulate current practice nimbly and see beyond current practice. We are all seeking guides and mentors.

What comes after the information age? (be sure to read the comments, too)

It’s an interesting idea, but I don’t think we’re getting away from the Information Age into the Expertise Age. After all, expertise is just a specialized (useful!) form of information.

In the comments, Tim O’Reilly points out that the real change is in how information is gathered and distributed with “the rise of new forms of computer mediated aggregators and new forms of collective curation and communication.”

I believe that we are still firmly in the Information Age because information has not yet become a commodity product. There is, however, clearly a shift happening in how information is created and delivered. I think it’s helpful to look at communication dimensions:

  • Traditional technical writing is one-to-many. One person/team writes, many people consume it.
  • Wikis are many-to-many. Many people write; many people use the information.
  • Mailing lists are many-to-one. Many people respond to one persons’ question.
  • Technical support is one-to-one. One person calls; one person responds.

Technical support is the most expensive option; it’s also often the most relevant. Technical writing is more efficient (because the answer to the question is provided just once), but also less personal and therefore less relevant.

Many technical writers are concerned about losing control over their content. For an example of the alarmist perspective, read Joanne Hackos’s recent article on wikis. Then, be sure to read Anne Gentle’s eponymous rebuttal on The Content Wrangler.

Keep in mind, though, that you can’t stop people from creating wikis, mailing lists, third-party books, forums, or anything else. You cannot control what people say about your products, and it’s possible that the “unauthorized” information will reach a bigger audience than the Official Documentation(tm). You can attempt to channel these energies into productive information, but our new information age is the Age of Uncontrolled Information.

Furthermore, the fact that people are turning to Google to find information says something deeply unflattering about product documentation, online help, and other user assistance. Why is a Google search more compelling than looking in the help?

About the Author

Sarah O'Keefe

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Content strategy consultant and founder of Scriptorium Publishing. Bilingual English-German, voracious reader, water sports, knitting, and college basketball (go Blue Devils!). Aversions to raw tomatoes, eggplant, and checked baggage.

5 Comments on “The Age of … Expertise?”

  1. I can see where Andy’s coming from. Free info doesn’t make expertise. You still need the aptitude, skill, and desire to use the info to do groovy things. That’s where the Age of Expertise comes in.

  2. Compelling post. I’ve got an answer for your final question about Google versus help:
    Search technology is second only to email for usage by the entire internet audience. It’s been adopted and is now the norm. I think that’s a great deal of why people love to Google versus examine online help.

    It could also be about how people’s learning methods differ. My mom, an educator herself, won’t read any help file (neither will my girlfriend for that matter) yet they don’t hesitate to call me for any product support.
    You strike a great chord about the friction between tech support (real-time, direct information exchange) and technical writing (static, searchable and hyperlinked content).
    Last month I did a post on wikipedia usage within a corporation and this is very relevant to the online collaborative workspace.
    There’s a sweet spot in there that reduces customer call volume, and actually increases consumer confidence in the product.
    Somewhere, the majority of the people will find the answers the majority of the time and mentally rate the support system a success.
    Again, killer article. This one spoke to me. And I’m not easy to impress.

  3. Great post Sarah – thought provoking with nifty categorizations for information channels.
    One reaction I had to the predicted coming of the “age of expertise” is that net-generation people (aged 2 to 22) apparently eschew expertise and prefer to take in dizzying amounts of information. From http://www.growingupdigital.com/, “N-Geners are not viewers or listeners or readers. They are users. They reject the notion of expertise as they shift through information at the speed of light by themselves, for themselves.” That generation can consume information at an awesome rate. (I’m raising one of their kind now, plus one who’s under age 2, hee.) So I believe that there is still a demand for information, but perhaps the pricing of information will be in time rather than money. (Both are the only scarcities as one of the comments on the oreilly.com post noted).
    I sent this post out to several colleagues, one of whom is a director-level manager for a tech pubs department. She asked an excellent question – how does this shift in valuing information vs. expertise help you determine the right amount of investment in tech doc? We all agreed there is a professional baseline that must be met. For example, when you buy a US$75,000 car, there had better be a nice looking manual in the glove compartment regardless of whether you ever open the manual to solve a problem (or just hire the expert mechanic). But how can a tech pubs department sell themselves as the expert mechanic when their deliverable is the manual? The car metaphor gets silly after a while (or maybe right away, ha ha), but it is a great question – for years tech pubs has tried to determine (and convince others) how much to invest in tech pubs. How does the expense and value proposition change during this incredible time of increasing information? I need to write this up as a blog post rather than taking up so much comment room, but would love to hear thoughts on that very question.

  4. Great post Sarah – thought provoking with nifty categorizations for information channels.
    One reaction I had to the predicted coming of the “age of expertise” is that net-generation people (aged 2 to 22) apparently eschew expertise and prefer to take in dizzying amounts of information. From http://www.growingupdigital.com/, “N-Geners are not viewers or listeners or readers. They are users. They reject the notion of expertise as they shift through information at the speed of light by themselves, for themselves.” That generation can consume information at an awesome rate. (I’m raising one of their kind now, plus one who’s under age 2, hee.) So I believe that there is still a demand for information, but perhaps the pricing of information will be in time rather than money. (Both are the only scarcities as one of the comments on the oreilly.com post noted).
    I sent this post out to several colleagues, one of whom is a director-level manager for a tech pubs department. She asked an excellent question – how does this shift in valuing information vs. expertise help you determine the right amount of investment in tech doc? We all agreed there is a professional baseline that must be met. For example, when you buy a US$75,000 car, there had better be a nice looking manual in the glove compartment regardless of whether you ever open the manual to solve a problem (or just hire the expert mechanic). But how can a tech pubs department sell themselves as the expert mechanic when their deliverable is the manual? The car metaphor gets silly after a while (or maybe right away, ha ha), but it is a great question – for years tech pubs has tried to determine (and convince others) how much to invest in tech pubs. How does the expense and value proposition change during this incredible time of increasing information? I need to write this up as a blog post rather than taking up so much comment room, but would love to hear thoughts on that very question.

  5. Great post Sarah – thought provoking with nifty categorizations for information channels.
    One reaction I had to the predicted coming of the “age of expertise” is that net-generation people (aged 2 to 22) apparently eschew expertise and prefer to take in dizzying amounts of information. From http://www.growingupdigital.com/, “N-Geners are not viewers or listeners or readers. They are users. They reject the notion of expertise as they shift through information at the speed of light by themselves, for themselves.” That generation can consume information at an awesome rate. (I’m raising one of their kind now, plus one who’s under age 2, hee.) So I believe that there is still a demand for information, but perhaps the pricing of information will be in time rather than money. (Both are the only scarcities as one of the comments on the oreilly.com post noted).
    I sent this post out to several colleagues, one of whom is a director-level manager for a tech pubs department. She asked an excellent question – how does this shift in valuing information vs. expertise help you determine the right amount of investment in tech doc? We all agreed there is a professional baseline that must be met. For example, when you buy a US$75,000 car, there had better be a nice looking manual in the glove compartment regardless of whether you ever open the manual to solve a problem (or just hire the expert mechanic). But how can a tech pubs department sell themselves as the expert mechanic when their deliverable is the manual? The car metaphor gets silly after a while (or maybe right away, ha ha), but it is a great question – for years tech pubs has tried to determine (and convince others) how much to invest in tech pubs. How does the expense and value proposition change during this incredible time of increasing information? I need to write this up as a blog post rather than taking up so much comment room, but would love to hear thoughts on that very question.

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