Has Knowledge become Commoditized?

It was perhaps one of the more interesting tweets that I’ve seen all year. It was simple in it’s focus and deep in it’s meaning.

It was from a friend of mine, Kari O’Brien (@KariOBrien):

that’s it i’m in love with #quora. i use it almost as much as google/bing, and it’s not a hassle like blekko.

I knew immediately that I had to speak with Kari. We did. I then spoke to a few others, and the pattern began to emerge. Sure, each person, from Kari on down, had a different “use case” for Google, Bing & Q&A sites. But what was common between them all was that Q&A sites like Quora and Focus were, in fact, taking mind-share away from the traditional search engines. Not much, but enough to indicate a fundamental shift in the way that people were using the internet for research and information.

[side thought: take a moment to consider what you see as the differences between information and knowledge…]

Go back a year ago – if you wanted information, or knowledge, you went to search engines, typed in a few keywords, or the general subject you were looking for, and 324,541 websites would appear. Best of all, it cost you nothing. That was the age of information as a commodity, and the tools you used to find that information were search engines (like Google and Yahoo-Bing). Yes, the knowledge was there, but you had to dig (often deep) to get it.

But the new use of Quora, Focus and similar sites has changed the way the game can be played. These are Question and Answer sites. You ask a question, and anybody can answer it. In turn, you can answer anybody else’s question. If others like your answer, they can, in a crowd-sourced manner, vote up your answer. Answering a question, and having it voted to the top of the ranks, implies Knowledge of the subject matter of the question.


Before I dig any deeper, let’s take a quick look at what Knowledge and Commoditization really represent. According to Wikipedia (which references the Oxford English Dictionary):

Knowledge is “(i) expertise, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject; (ii) what is known in a particular field or in total; facts AND [my emphasis] information; or (iii) to be absolutely certain or sure about something.”

Wikipedia’s definition for a Commoditization is much simpler, but equally telling:

“Commoditization occurs as a goods or services market loses differentiation across its supply base, often by the diffusion of the intellectual capital necessary to acquire or produce it efficiently. As such, goods that formerly carried premium margins for market participants have become commodities.”

Let’s put these two together in light of Kari’s statement (and my subsequent conversation with her and a few others): When they are looking for information or knowledge, they may still use Google or Bing. But when they are looking for Knowledge, they increasingly go to Q&A sites. Not only do they get to see the top rated answers, but they also get to see differing, alternative answers and viewpoints (and thus can make their own decisions about the value of the answer). And it costs them nothing. Knowledge, like information, has become commoditized.

Q&A SITES AREN’T NEW, BUT THEIR USAGE, AND IMPACT, IS. has been around for years. The same is true for Yahoo Answers. Even LinkedIn Answers and Facebook Questions are jumping onto the Q&A bandwagon (many people already use the social media site Twitter as a Q&A tool). But what has changed is the type of “content” that people are searching for, and the search tools they use to find it. While Google & Bing are great free tools for finding massive amounts of raw information, sites like Quora and Focus have become the free search engines for Knowledge – and the popularity of these Q&A sites is indicating both a shift in the relative value of information vs knowledge, and the commoditzation of both.


I’m not arguing that there still isn’t “content of value” that will always carry a premium price (especially in the upper-end of the analytical and investigative analysis/research), but for the mass market, this is a profound change that certainly has implications for those who previously provided “Knowledge” as part of their business or value proposition. For those in the Professional Services industry, here are some questions to consider:

  • How does the commoditization of knowledge impact your Professional Services business?
  • What if your client already has a pre-conceived notion of the “right” answer that just isn’t “right” for their particular situation?
  • How do you add value – and improve upon – the knowledge that a client may have gathered from a Q&A site?
  • How does commoditized knowledge help you improve your “value-add” services? Can you leverage this same information to improve your own offerings?

For a continuation of this discussion, and a slightly different business perspective, check out “Professional Services: What is your Product?” by my friend Marcio Saito (@Marcio_Saito). He’s got some interesting insights, and questions, from his unique business perspective that are well worth the read.

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Thanks for reading – Fred.

  • RababKhan

    Information alone cannot compensate for knowledge. While quora and others have made it possible for people to use their own insights and those of others to turn information into knowledge, there will always be a need for people. People who can use their already acquired knowledge and help seekers apply it to their particular situation.
    The commoditization of knowledge and information does not close the doors to services professionals, in fact it increases their usefulness. Whenever there is a commoditization of something, there is also an inevitable saturation which leads to confusion and lack of understanding. This brings in the need for a professional to help people understand and choose the best for their particular situation. However, it also means that said professional needs to be on top of all relevant knowledge and information in his area of service provision.

    Thanks for the opportunity to wrack my brain early in the morning. :)

  • birgerking

    Hi Fred, I think your post is a good wrap up.

    I’m studying the shift in business and culture for about two years now. I think your conclusions are correct. Knowledge becomes a commodity. I would consider three things:

    1) Industrialized countries shift from commodity economy to economies of knowledge, attention, or whatever. While the content is changing the culture / system build around the commodity economy prevents changes on itself. We are still trying to keep the same bin – the product – but we pour in another content: Knowledge. A question here is: How do we change our economic system to match our desires with the ones of the new digital information age?

    2) @RabbKhan I agree with Quora, but there are some problems from within this system: People going to look always for the experts in the front row. There can be only few people building the “top notch” of service professionals. Regarding to the effect of “network quality” they get more relevance and influence because they have been relevant and are influencers (that is why Facebook kills all competitiors). Opposite to products knowledge could be copied and used without control, means only a few could avail an opportunity while the mass is without chance selling thier knowledge. For exmaple: Who said that Tim O’Reilly has the best expertise in a specific branch, even when we believe that he is a smart guy. A question here is: How do we promote the second, third or fourth row?

    3) Can’t see that the commodity economy disappears. Even when it does, the changes happen very slow. We need a plan to survive that. I believe the classic race of commodity economics – higher productivity, less costs – will emerge also in the upcoming new economy. What a sad vision of a world, but I am shure we won’t change the culture that created our prosperity. Take a look at books like Tim Ferris “4 hour workweek”, “Simplify” or even social software like Quora. We have already started to engage measures of commodity economy on our individual existence. IMO expertise is the commodity of the future in line with influece and reputation. We should build strategies and goals focused on expertise. A question here is: How do we build expertise as fast as possible?

  • Anonymous

    Linked from the the other article for tonight’s discussion.

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