22 Sep Online communities may be next business market
Madison, Wis. – Raghu Ramakrishnan wishes he had a crystal ball that could help him predict the next great technological driver in business.
Ramakrishnan, a vice president and research fellow at Yahoo, has a hunch that the next great driver is search, which he called “the cash cow with a big target on it.”
But if his preference trumps his hunch, it is user-generated content (combined with search) that will somehow enable professionals to complete tasks and therefore be monetized by companies like Yahoo.
They will accomplish this with a redefinition of search that mines the many volumes of data and knowledge being generated by online communities worldwide. “Then you go after different business processes altogether,” he said.
Ramakrishnan, who until last semester was a professor with the University of Wisconsin Computer Science Department and is the founder of the department’s Data Mining Institute, returned to Madison Thursday to address the monthly meeting of Accelerate Madison. In a separate interview, he offered some advice to Wisconsin on how to start building a larger mass of technology businesses.
He spoke to members of Accelerate Madison about how online communities are reshaping the Web as a way to connect people who create online content and share their messages, research, and photos – with some degree of control over who sees what.
In his current project with Yahoo, where he has worked for three short months, Ramakrishnan is building a group that will work on various aspects of online community systems – in part to make the knowledge they generate more widely available, in part to explore their commercial potential.
The Yahoo group hopes to enable focused content creation that goes beyond content search and into people search. “We see it as a direct extension of Web search,” Ramakrishnan said.
It is an extension that might create opportunities for corporate advertising to reach the demographic profiles represented by people in various online communities. There are basically four types of community systems – social networks, enthusiast/affinity, knowledge collectives, and marketplaces. All of them present opportunities to monetize this potential new direction of search, particularly enthusiast/affinity, which has been described as a religion.
Ramakrishnan cited one example where the online community is populated with new moms. “If you’re Johnson & Johnson,” he said, “wouldn’t you like to sponsor that online community that talks diapers?”
Before this business story unfolds, there are a fair number of technical and privacy issues to address, especially if Yahoo and other search engine vehicles expect to motivate the casual user to participate in online communities.
Professor Guri Sohi, chairman of the UW Computer Science Department, said his former colleague’s challenge also will include directing people to relevant information. “The question about all this data on the Web is: how do we get knowledge from the data?” Sohi stated.
Much has been made of the difficulty Wisconsin companies have in recruiting and retaining IT talent, but Ramakrishnan said the state has yet to develop the critical mass of technology companies necessary to recruit from the outside.
A professional who is being asked to relocate, especially with a family in tow, will want to know – if he or she is prudent – how many other opportunities there are in the vicinity of the new job, and they will want to know that in case the new job doesn’t work out, Ramakrishnan said.
The declining enrollment of the UW Computer Science program will not help to buck that trend. Sohi said enrollment is about half of what it was at its 2000 peak, even though the department continues to enjoy a reputation for developing computer technology that is coveted by corporate America.
Ramakrishnan believes more incentives for budding entrepreneurs will be required. He suggested more business incubation centers where start-up companies can share – rent free – professional services and collaborate with similar companies in the same space, but he acknowledged that it’s a multi-faceted problem.
He also cited the presence of a highly regarded, home-grown medical technology company as proof of Wisconsin’s potential. “You need to attack that critical mass on as many fronts as you can,” he said. “The fact that Epic Systems is here is important.”
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