It's All in What You Know: Internet Information and Expert Referral Services


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The free flow of information, from those who knew to those who'd asked, was a core operating principle. Informal knowledge bases accreted over time in public FTP sites, gopher servers, and FAQs. Later, as the user-friendly Web came to overlay the native Net interface that only a nerd could love, online access became increasingly democratized and content more commercialized. Gradually, information-sharing became a commodity—not necessarily with an explicit price tag attached—but often used to attract users and keep them coming back to a site.

Web-based information exchange comes in many flavors and forms, from the ad hoc, unmediated sharing of expertise in chat rooms, email groups, and online forums to digital library reference services staffed by degreed professionals. In between lie an interesting assortment of so-called "expert services" that feature self-identified (and sometimes credentialed) authorities poised to tackle anything from quick reference questions to complex and specialized consulting assignments in a variety of fields.

Looking for Informatin In all the Right Places
The claim to subject expertise filters out such popular information offerings as Google Answers, which requires nothing more than that its researchers be 18 or older and reasonably adept at finding information on the Web, as well as numerous other peer-based question-answering sites. Subject expertise also serves to distinguish expert sites from the myriad contract research services administered by libraries and other institutions and those offered, Web-wide, by independent professionals primed to provide secondary research for a fee. Limiting the field by professed expertise still leaves dozens of "ask an expert" sites, some specialized, others attempting to be comprehensive; some consumer- or curriculum-oriented, others aimed at business and professional users. Some expert sites encourage discrete Q&A-type transactions, while others broker longer-term consulting agreements.

A major player in marketing professional expertise via the Web is Intota, the new name for Teltech, which was acquired by Sopheon in 2000. Teltech, founded in 1984, offered an expert referral network to supplement its secondary research services. Intota continues to serve business and professional clients with a focus on technology-related information needs. The Web site offers searchable and browseable access to biographical sketches of experts in various fields. Potential clients can contact experts directly for a base fee of $250, which buys up to an hour of the expert's time, including any time the expert might need to prep for an adequate answer. Experts and clients communicate via email, fax, mail or phone, and the fee may cover several such interactions—as long as they pertain to the same issue—over a period of five business days or less. Subscription plans are another pricing option for access to Intota's experts.

Nerac, another well-established expert services firm, has been around even longer than Teltech/Intota. Founded in 1966, Nerac doesn't lead with the "find an expert" card; it emphasizes technical database searching by subject experts rather than direct consultation, and serves many of its client companies, on an annual subscription basis, by marketing through their libraries and information centers.

A Web of Expertise
The outlook for Web-based expert services may appear promising at first glance. But, according to one consultant who's been registered with Intota/Teltech since the '80s, the number of referrals has fallen off markedly since the advent of the Web. People can find their own experts now—or think they can. (One rough measure: Searching on the phrase "ask an expert" in Google brings up 366,000 hits.) Many of the best experts, he feels, don't register with such services: They may be forbidden by their employer to take on outside work. They may be "conflicted out"—limited by existing client relationships in the kinds of projects and clients they can get involved with. They may simply be too busy with existing clients to be interested in attracting additional work. Some potential clients—attorneys in particular—regard self-identified "experts" as somewhat-tainted hired guns willing to sell their testimony to the highest bidder. And, although expert services Web sites may provide a useful adjunct or referral channel for both information professionals and individual consumers faced with questions that fall outside their own areas of expertise, many potential clients would rather locate an expert through networking, word-of-mouth, and personal recommendations—especially when substantial consulting fees are involved.

However, while expert interaction may remain a viable add-on to an existing site, a Web-based business model built on human expertise may not be scaleable in the long run. Both Intota and Nerac owe their longevity to client bases and relationships cultivated long before the advent of the Web. Perusing "lists of lists" of experts like the one at Refdesk.com reveals a lot of dead links as well as sites that have obviously changed their business model since they first went live. Ask Jeeves, with its army of editors working madly to build bridges to answers for the questions its users were asking, eventually realized that its effort to encompass the entire realm of human interest was not going to pay the bills. Jeeves refocused instead on corporate solutions, creating "expert," natural-language interfaces to customer and tech support knowledge bases for entities as diverse as Datek, Nike, Nestle, Visa, DaimlerChrysler, Dell Computer, British Telecom, and the State of Washington.

Sopheon, Intota's parent company, isn't relying on marketing find-an-expert services to the Web community at large. Instead, they're leveraging their existing resource through appropriate professional outlets, such as ChemIndustry.com, and featuring it as a component of several of their enterprise products. One of these is an "expertise-sharing solution" called Organik, a software-based knowledge-management application. The package includes a question-and-answer escalation capability through which Sopheon guarantees a response to user questions within 24 hours of submission. According to a company press release, its "highly skilled professional researchers...are equipped with proven methodologies, state-of-the-art primary and secondary research tools, and access to free and fee-based electronic and human answer sources, including Sopheon's proprietary network of experts in more than 33,000 areas of science, technology, and business." Organik is part of an initiative called Accolade, a software and services suite designed to facilitate process design and new product development, which Sopheon is marketing through alliances with Arthur D. Little and other third parties. A research portal component provides access, once again, to Sopheon's expert network.

ELearning Curve
Expertise can be acquired through education and experience. It can also be programmed in. The most interesting and dynamic developments in online expert services may be in the area of automated expertise. In increasing numbers, companies are using software "experts" to leverage their proprietary knowledge bases, assisting internal users in navigating through complex but well-defined areas, such as employee benefits information, or, like Jeeves, providing automated tech support and customer service through Web-based "self-help" systems. Within a couple of years, we can expect to see virtual agents that interact with information-seekers using case-based reasoning, neural networks, or other advanced software technologies. Ford Motor Company, in fact, has already "hired" a virtual super-mechanic named Ernie to help dealer service techs diagnose and troubleshoot repairs. Ernie is a product of NativeMinds, a San Francisco-based software company, which refers to him as a vRep. Other vRep customers include Oracle, a major investor in NativeMinds, as well as GlaxoSmithKline, Unilever (Dove skincare products), Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble (Iams pet food), and Nissan. Down the road, automated experts may assist in even more subtle and sensitive applications, such as investment and financial services.

Automated expertise works best when it operates on a controlled and predictable knowledge base in which the language—both syntax and vocabulary—is well-defined and the relationships among concepts are known and can readily be mapped. Where it falls short is where bona fide human experts excel—in grasping complex ideas instinctively, transcending the lockstep logical reasoning processes that can readily be programmed, and making the intuitive leaps that no software-based "intelligent" system has yet been able to replicate.

In Mary Doria Russell's remarkable book The Sparrow, particularly brilliant and adept scientists are shadowed at work by human agents assigned to observe and query everything they do. The object is to build expert software systems that will replicate their innate expertise—what they don't even know they know—as well as the fact-based knowledge that they can convey more readily and systematically. A good "vulture," as the subjects call their agents, can pick your brain so thoroughly that you achieve a certain "intellectual immortality," your expertise permanently enshrined in lines of code and subroutines.

The "vulture" scenario is not as far-fetched as it may seem—and it suggests the next evolutionary step for computers, paralleling the well-known progression from data to information, to knowledge and finally to wisdom. Computers began as data processors, have enjoyed a long and fruitful heyday in the realm of information retrieval, and are now being deployed in various knowledge-based systems. Whether virtual intelligence can take the next step—from synthesized knowledge to wisdom, the ultimate goal of the human intellect, is a question that may stump even the experts.