Crowdsourcing is already used for everything from design and software development to legal advice and journalism. Now paid Q&A based on crowdsourcing enters the field, and will change the way companies find business information in a profound way.

During the coming years small businesses and individuals will gain easy access to valuable information previously the province of large corporations.

During the 20th century the phrase ”knowledge is power” has been popular amongst business executives to the point of cliche. However it does capture the notion that your knowledge translates into a comptetitive advantage, into power over the market and into profit.

Knowledge is power

In Western market economies this expresion has proven true with regard to everything from politics and academia, to commodities companies and banking. If you have the right information at the right time, you are in a good position to make a good deal no matter what your industry. The importance of knowledge has only grown as our economies have shifted from rural and agricultural to urban and industrial, and lately to service and information economies.

Knowledge has clearly been distributed very unevenly among companies and individuals during these transitions. With some exceptions, wealthy people and big corporations have had access to more and better information than small companies and less connected and less wealthy people. This has simply served to entrench the power and competitive advantage of the already successful and consequently to stifle competition.

Big brother has all the candies

One of the main reasons SMEs have had troubles keeping up with their larger counterparts is due to the fact that it costs money to dig up good information and disseminate it effectively within an organisation. The Internet changed this in a radical way when search engines began to make enormous amount of useful information available at a click to anyone with a PC.

However, still many of the best information sources were kept offline or behind paywalls, and inaccessible to SMEs with limited (re)search budgets.

A decade and a half has passed since search engines appeared. Now social networks and crowdsourcing are changing the game again. Global knowledge markets today consist of a number of different services such as forums, Q&A sites, expert networks and document markets.

Information (crowd)sources are levelling the field

During the past two years these social search services have matured and become widely used by the global business community. For example, ask any friend who works in international business how they find information about partners, leads and markets. It’s likely that many of them will tell you they use groups and forums on LinkedIn, perhaps also posting and answering on Q&A sites focused on their sector.

These new tools play a significant part in levelling the playing field so that small and big businesses, incumbents and challengers can compete more equally.

Until now the opportunities for individuals and SMEs to trade knowledge with each other directly has been severly limited by the absence from the knowledge market of one key component : money. There has been no practical way for two parties to trade knowledge, especially if they’re trading across borders. The main obstacles have been tax and VAT regulations, in combination with strict regulations on payouts.

Information wants to be free. Knowledge commands a price

In my experience people are in general very helpful on the web, and you can get much interesting information for free either through Googling or through forums and Q&A.

However there is a big ’but’. The amount of time that people are willing to give you online for free is governed by the same social conventions as operate in the offline world. Quora provides excellent examples of this. Where interactions are social, people abide by social ’rules’.

Topics about hobbies, current affairs, sport, celebrity and so forth attract hordes of contributors and followers. There’s seemingly no end to how much people can write. However non-social (you might say boring) questions get far fewer answers.

Let’s be honest; most of the information you need in your job is not ’fun’. Lists of leads, market data, competitor pricing, organisational charts, benchmarks, contact information, customs regulations etc etc. Anyone reading this jumping up and down behind your screens in excitment? Quite.

Not only are many of the otherwise useful groups on the business networks rapidly getting bogged down by self-promotion and spamvertizing, but there’s also little social reward in providing answers to people seeking detailed business intelligence. What is more, it crosses the line from the social sphere into the work sphere.

Just as there are social conventions there are also conventions within business. Within the world of work people may offer time and expertise for free to build relationships but it’s generally in the expectation that that relationship will develop into a trading relationship.

The Q&A or social search market is still largely just that; social. The real transformation into a working knowledge market will draw on elements of social Q&A; providing a place where people can post questions with what they need, take a coffee break and get back to an answer from someone anywhere.

But critically on the other side of the Internet, there will be a person who actually got paid for the valuable 30 minutes he/she just spent to answer an important question.

Knowledge markets built on crowdsourcing together with money, potentially offers both the critical mass of expertise as well as the necessary incentives for people to share what they know. Money unlocks knowledge, or if you wish ”premium answers”, that otherwise would not see the light of day, adding an enormous reach into the vast pool of all human knowledge.

New tools new rules

During the next few years we will see paid business Q&A flourish in any number of fields, and change the way companies find critical information for their daily business. So what happens when anyone can place a question and much of what is currently ’secret’ becomes common knowledge? How does this change the game for companies?

There will be a lot of wrangling as people start to make money sharing what they know. Expect arguments about what information should be shared and what should not. Who owns the knowledge you have in your brain? Expect to see see heated debates about what knowledge an individual can be considered to own and what belongs to his or her employer.

These new tools will place new demands on business acumen, innovation and speed. Business ’secrets’ as we see them now will gradually fade away and be replaced by new ways to look at intellectual property. Perhaps only patents and personal information will be considered truly holy in the end.

As fewer and fewer pieces of information are locked away transparency will increase in most industries and competitive pressure will increase dramatically. It is, for instance, very difficult to see how any ”public secret” can remain hidden in this new environment; information that is not proprietary, but very hard to come by today if you don’t know the right person (for example, a certain company´s pricing , which all customers have access to and which is shared widely without NDAs).

The sphere of the truly confidential will shrink. We will need to adjust. However in the long run it will surely be fore the better. Every innovation that has aided communication has sped the process of human development from the printing press to the internet. Almost every instance of people making knowledge secret, whether in Mediaeval guilds or modern cartels, has benefitted a few and not the many.

And we know that for perfect markets to exist so must perfect knowledge. We can’t promise the latter but we believe that properly developed knowledge markets will be an immeasurable boon to innovation, competition and even democracy.