Reprinted from Newsweek, Special Edition on Technology
by Bill Gates
It's hard to say exactly when it happened, but at some point in the last 20 years the word "knowledge" became an adjective. As intellectual property became increasingly important to businesses, and personal computers started appearing on every desktop, employees morphed into knowledge workers, companies began to focus on knowledge management and key information was stored in knowledge bases connected -- in theory -- via knowledge networks. The result was the knowledge economy, a phenomenon that has transformed the business of business and helped entire emerging economies to compete globally.
But this is only the beginning. Most of the "knowledge" on which the knowledge economy is built is actually just information—data, facts and basic business intelligence. Knowledge itself is more profound. As management guru Tom Davenport once put it, "Knowledge is information combined with experience, context, interpretation, and reflection." It's the knowledge derived from information that gives you a competitive edge.
Most of us now live in an "information democracy"-- if you have access to a PC and the Internet, you can tap into almost all the information that is publicly available worldwide. Advanced software and Web services can help trace, slice and dice the information in ways that were impossible only a decade ago. But while we've gone a long way toward optimizing how we use information, we haven't yet done the same for knowledge.
This is a vast growth opportunity, and a surprisingly tough challenge. While information wants to be free, knowledge is much "stickier" -- harder to communicate, more subjective, less easy to define. For instance, the knowledge you accumulate throughout your career -- the "tacit" knowledge, rather than the "explicit" knowledge found in, say, manuals or textbooks -- defines your value to the organization you work for. Your ability to combine it with the knowledge of co-workers, partners and customers can make the difference between success and failure -- For you and your employer. Yet today, even locating sources of knowledge within complex organizations can be daunting.
But as software gets smarter about how people think and work, it's starting to help them synthesize and manage knowledge, too. Some of this technology is deceptively simple. Software such as our own Microsoft Office OneNote helps people take and organize their typed and sketched notes using a "pen and paper" approach that is more abstract than text-based word processors. On another level, OneNote and a new generation of "mind-mapping" software can also be used as a digital "blank slate" to help connect and synthesize ideas and data -- and ultimately create new knowledge.
Researchers at Microsoft and elsewhere are developing technology that can unobtrusively "watch" you working, then make suggestions about related subjects or ideas. Interestingly, even if the software makes a bad guess, it can still be valuable in helping spark new ideas. Computer scientists are also making progress against a long-held dream of "intelligent agents" that anticipate your needs and provide just-in-time information that's relevant to the work you're doing. Experimental programs known as reasoning engines can test your ideas against commonsense logic, spotting flaws in hypotheses and acting as "virtual subject experts" to help guide your thinking.
These technologies promote "consilience" -- literally, the "jumping together" of knowledge from different disciplines. They help people combine their own ideas with at least some existing knowledge far more efficiently than was previously possible. But they also leave a key problem unsolved: how to unearth all the new ideas that are being generated around the world.
Today's search engines are good at locating tidbits of information in an ocean of data, and even at finding answers to simple questions. The next step is pattern-recognition engines and mental models to help people mine and assess the value of all that information, and technologies that infuse online data with meaning and context. None of this is science fiction: the technologies that make it possible already exist.
The power they hold is hard to exaggerate. Inventor Robert Metcalfe theorized that the value of a network is roughly equal to the square of the number of people using it. "Metcalfe's Law" applies equally to knowledge: being able to tap into the world's finest thinkers as easily as we can now search the Web for information will revolutionize business, science and education. It will literally transform how we think -- and help us finally realize the potential of a truly global knowledge economy.