Swamp Mists in the Noonday Sun

· information management

Eighteen years ago, I wrote……..

Have you heard of the Internet? Well if you haven’t, you possibly haven’t looked at a newspaper or magazine in the last six months, or read the fine print that has recently started appearing on TV ads.  What was an unknown commodity a year or two ago is now ‘the rage”. There are truly unique aspects to this phenomenal growth: never before has there been such demand for a product about which so little has been known.  And yet, the internet product(s) have been around for decades. How did all this happen?

What happened was that a user friendly interface for the Internet was developed which put an esoteric high tech industry and academic tool within reach of a wide spectrum of the population.  But that population was, and in many ways remains indifferent or outright antagonistic to computers and the world of geeks. People had an idea that the information age was upon them, and that the Internet would be a key element in that age. But they needed help in understanding it.

Into this knowledge gap leaped gurus of many stripes. Gurus who marketed hardware and software product, gurus who sold training, and gurus who sold business strategies and procedures that were designed to take advantage of the new technology. The lab coats of the mainframe maintainers had been replaced by yuppie suits and $200 loafers.

This new generation of tin salespeople spoke an exotic new jargon, writing lines of syntax that made DOS look like Jack and Jill. What worried business leaders was the fervor of the salesforce. They had religion. They really believed that they were on the forefront of the global village, that they had the tools that would break down national boundaries and any other synthetic constraint to a global economy.

And front line workers were soon to take up the call. They had discovered e-mail, usenet news and GOPHER. They had established mailing lists among colleagues and were reading something called zines. They were plugged in. They were hooked. And senior management had no idea what they were talking about.

Then along came the World Wide Web. An interesting device that has more syllables in its abbreviation (WWW) than it does in its name. The Web all of a sudden was something managers could see and understand. There were no complicated commands. No manuals. No telnetting, FTPing, ARCHIE or anything that could confuse. There was only point and click.

And point and click brought up attractive graphics, music, videos and what appears to be an inexpensive brilliant way to sell goods and services. Never mind that there is little or no data to show potential or real return on investment. Never mind that the technology can’t track access and usage by clients with the precision that business requires. Never mind that there are still serious concerns about information integrity, hackers and the security of personal and financial information. All of a moment everyone has to “be on-line”. Everyone has to have their e-mail address on their business card. And now, every company needs an Intranet.

In these developments, for reasons unknown, business practices which had become tried and true in recent years seem to have disappeared like swamp mists in the noon day sun. Where a business case (costs, clients, etc.) was always needed for a media advertising spread, such is rarely mentioned when the decision is made to “establish a company Web site”. Where the approval of senior management was a critical signoff in a corporate news release in the good old days, now junior staff load up company and government information into publically accessible internet sites without a second thought.  Where organizations used to dwell mightily on their corporate image…on their “public face”, many now have indeed gone “on-line” without much analysis of how they intend to operate there, how they intend to appear, how they intend to relate to clients, to competitors.

One example. The Internet works at a different speed than the “traditional” communications world.  When one sends a postal letter to a company complaining about the taste of their new cereal, one does not expect a reply before three, four weeks or more. When one send an e-mail to a company with a similar concern one expects at least an acknowledgement within 24 hours, and a reply within a day or two. A disgruntled Internet user will wait several days only and then take his case to the Internet community. The one person complaint has now become a broadcast complaint reaching a million readers or more.  Few companies have established performance standards for operating in the on-line word. To their peril.

What should one do?  Certainly senior managers should, in whatever discipline, take a little time to read something about what the Internet is and where it is heading. They should surf a little to see what all the excitement is about. They should try to develop some sensitivity to changing communications values and attempt to get an understanding of what the “information age” means.  And when they have gone through all of that they should have a chat, quietly and collegially, with their workforce, clients, whoever might be a stakeholder in the enterprise. And discuss what it would mean to transform the old way of doing things.

When some of the issues have been identified, and some basic rules, procedures and objectives have been worked out; when a financial analysis has been undertaken; when as assessment of technological and office infrastructure needs has been completed, then the company ought to make some high level decisions about whether, and how it is going to establish itself on the Internet. And if positive, that first decision should be that the enterprise ought to develop an Internet and Intranet strategy and adhere to it.

[This essay appeared in a November 1996 edition of the Journal of the Financial Management Institute of Canada]

David G. Jones B.A., M.A.

Principal – Shibumi Management Canada



Enjoy this essay? Here’s my area of study and major work. While it is in the genre of military history, it is actually concerned with peace, governance and strategic planning. Intrigued? Have a look.

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