Internet in Context

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My talk to you this afternoon will differ in several aspects from what you have heard from others today. And very likely will differ to a larger degree from what you have been reading in the press, journals and magazines.  Before any considers some of my messages “wet blanketing” I want to make it clear up front that I think electronic communications, and most particularly the Internet, are possibly the most important event of the century. 

But that I have chosen to speak on the “context” of Internet does give a hint of where I am coming from on this issue. I feel the Internet’s true worth can only be seen when it is assessed in terms of where it fits in an organization’s communications, marketing and client relations strategies, where it is part of IM/IT planning and delivery, and where it is used to help transform both the nature of the business and the way that the business is being conducted. On a more technical level, the Internet must be understood to be a suite of functions and functionalities. An Internet user does not need the whole 5 course meal, but a “user” is not who limits himself to the World Wide Web component of the Internet. 

Before I begin, let me tell you a bit about myself. Several years ago I noted the emergence of “sunshine laws” in the United States and the emergence of something called “:open government”. I was intrigued by the notion of taxpayers being able to get something easily from government. And that something would be something they probably needed, right then. This suggested opportunities for improved service. 

At about the same time electronic bulletin board systems (BBS) and the Internet were entering the community domain and becoming accessible off university campuses and beyond the defense and government establishments. here was the tool that could support information flow to, and from public agencies I thought. Both offered good file management and delivery, easy of access and use and for BBS at any rate, a rather low cost solution for both parties. 

These interests drove me into a career that linked electronic communications, information management and  service delivery. For several years I was the chair of a cross government consultation group on information that spanned 50 departments and Crown corporations. My observations will be drawn from this background, and my more recent experiences with Internet. 

To return to the theme “Internet in Context”. There are several contexts that I want to address today, as follows: 

1. The context of information management

2. The context of planning for information management technologies

3. Business use

4. recognizing limitations

5. measuring success

6. Some thoughts on the future

 

The Information Management Context

Recently a new position emerged in the United States: that of “Chief Knowledge Officer” or “CKO”. The rationale for having a CKO is that business now recognizes that “knowledge” is as key a business factor as is HR, planning or administration. And “knowledge” is defined as “value added corporate intelligence”. And we were just getting used to the idea of having CIOs in industry and government!

But whether CKO or CIO, these individuals look at their organization’s information requirements and determine the what and the hows, such as how technology can help put the right information on the right desk at the right time, or in the right client’s hands when she or he needs it. A key tool for orchestrating the proper gathering, holding, distributing and disposing of information is an “Information management Framework” that lays out key elements for good management. A good framework shows how these elements relate to one another and how they are to be delivered.

In my view managers will not be able to avoid the conclusion that the Internet is a potentially very strong candidate for wide area application to meet a number of business needs: for internal information flow and collaborative work, for external profile, customer identification and service, and corporate inter-relations.  If these are indeed the objectives of the organization, and not simply that of “getting on the Web” with a hastily crafted Home Page, then the potential of the Internet needs to be married with organizational need, and a plan for delivery and maintenance resolved. And the Internet is not now, nor ever will be the solution to every possible need. It is one tool among many and must be managed as such.  If you watch advertising trends carefully you will note the emerging, near-standard provision of a company’s toll free number, e-mail address and WWW location. Electronic relations are clearly become the routes of choice for many.

The Context of Planning for Information Management Technologies

How many people are “on the Internet” today? How many connections? How many systems and servers? Nobody knows. But it is a lot, and it is still growing at a phenomenal rate. But will everyone be accessing the information highway from their homes? My son-in-law who has made a career of international electronic networking answered my question about the future this way: “There will always be those, and a lot of them, who will never in their life touch a keyboard”.

I think though there is a different situation in the workplace. I think it can be said with some assurance that most every worker will be “touching a keyboard” sooner or later, for all or part of his day. This is because the trend, very clearly supported by Internet technologies, is for user access and data input. On-line. (Inter-connected. “Entering information once and using it many times” as the Blue Book says. Therefore systems which are being built, and applications which are being bought or built will need to recognize and be able to co-exist in an environment where things will be expected to work together. Where employee base, function and career data will be linked to facilities management (when needed) and with executive resource management strategies (as an on-going source of data). 

And because we are dealing with a new medium for business support we will need to know, collectively, how this information is to be gathered (carefully and with controls); how it is to be accessed, managed and maintained (by all), and how it is supported technically (with a suite of inter-operative applications designed to perform in a TCP/IP environment internally, and externally). 

This is not to suggest for one moment that we should consider trashing legacy systems and databases. But I think we need to move away, just as soon as we can, from the very costly practice of bridging to legacy systems and spend more time and thought on the issue of accessing legacy data with the new technologies. Leave that old database there, but allow your people to do data entry and generate reports with their mouse not the main frame. 

Business Use

Systems. Organizations develop (quite normally) with a hodge podge of  computers, systems, applications, values work rules, definitions.  And survive, nevertheless and somehow. Mind this takes i n some cases a huge amount of baling wire and McIver tape, but it can be made to hold together. When the situation becomes hopeless it is not uncommon for management to trash its system configuration and start over. This process does not value the heavy investment in both technology and people. 

People. Using Internet technologies effectively will, whether you see it or not, transform your way of doing business. Like internal e-mail, it will level your organization. E-mail or any sort leaps tall buildings as employees cross traditional boundaries horizontally and vertically.  Internet, as a direct connection to the “wider world” will put many people on that interface for the first time. And this in organizations that have “official spokespersons”. 

Culture and Training. I am asked constantly for reference to a “good introductory manual for Internet”. I have never seen one. What I have seen are technical tomes of several hundred pages that are acronym-ridden and continue to make assumptions about people’s degree of computer literacy. My suggestion is usually “go surfing”. Set up some search problems. Find your family genealogy on the net. Send a relative an e-mail. Read a newsgroup on orchid growing. And when you have a problem, have someone identified that you can go to for help. Formal training will be more effective after you have been on-line for at least a half year.  But knowing how to use the tools for research and surfing for sites will not teach you how to be an information provider.  To understand the way that information must be organized, for is can be formatted, where it can be located and the various ways it can be accessed and read, takes some learning. This is the discipline of information management which extends from the entire framework you saw, down to the definition of a single field on an employment application.  This training is important if you want to be assured that you are managing information rightly both inside and outside: that you are not collecting, managing and disseminating a lot of useless information, for example, just because “it has always been done this way”. 

Facilities. Most of us have talked about, or tinkered with remote access and “teleworking”.  But the fact is that with the Internet, BBSs, FAX-modems and ISDN among other things, remote work is today a very real, very sound possibility. The question may no longer be “can this individual work off the premises” but “is there a need for this individual to report to our offices every day”?  If the US trend is heading this way regarding “CKOs”, and we are all to become “knowledge workers” we need to see how, at the office or at home, we can exploit these technologies to get us more fully plugged in.  And the rationale for doing this? It might be, at this stage,  no more than knowing that our competition is doing it already.  Consider only one point: time zones are irrelevant on the Internet. A company that has global aspirations should be considering how it can maintain a high level of customer service if the calls are coming in 24 hours a day. 

Relations to Products and Services. Food manufacturers carefully divide their available resources between production and marketing. But there is always a bit of both in the annual budget plan. I think this view ought to be extended wider. That we should think always of both the products we deliver and the services we offer along with the ways we deliver. and the way in which we receive critical new input data (such as customer complaints). Internet is a n important new tool here because it puts the capability in the hands of the average consumer to e-mail the President of the firm or the Chairman of the Board.  A new product line then needs both a distribution plan and communications plan that includes Internet as one vehicle for getting supporting and background information out and comments and criticisms in. 

Internal Networking. We know very little, from a hard data perspective, about what information employees need (when and in what form) to perform their daily tasks. There are managers who feel, for example, that “research” is “just not something my people to”. I think every employee does research, every day. I think we have a whole lot to learn not only about these needs, the way they are addressed at the desktop, but how they relate or they do not relate.  A busy knowledge worker should, when dealing with a customer complaint, not have to enter basic customer data more than once to e-mail, record, correspond or telephone with that customer. We are not using to any large degree the vast opportunities that are there for desktop automation and inter-operability. And we have a great deal to learn about how employees can work together. We all suffer from the stovepipe and cubicle mind set that makes us forget that a fair sized organization will have just about every skill, background and interests and level of enthusiasm the typical organization requires. How many of us do an internal C.V. search for needed skill sets before we hire consultants?  Intranets allow personal C.v.’s to be loaded onto searchable databases that can general individual and group skill sets in mere seconds.

Recognizing Limitations. I have some concerns about moving too quickly because of assumptions about the need to “get on the net” because “everyone else is there,” or because you have access to the technology and you want to put it to use. Our first limitation then is our own lack of preparedness to fully understand the business / technology relationship and how to exploit Internet.

The key business limitation on Internet at this time is that not everyone has access. In fact, the numbers are very low. We have little hard data on user profile and access sites: do people access from work or home, or from shared community providers (freenets)? Such information would assist us greatly in knowing who was accessing what, and for what purposes. We could then configure our systems and information to be more client-responsive.

Another area of concern is performance measurement. Though there has been a great deal of progress in the development of tools to track site hits and identify callers, there is still a lot to be learned about real assessment of use and “take up.” A commercial firm using a Web site for product promotion and client service would want to know roughly, or exactly, what people are getting when they access a site. 

The true value of the Internet will be realized when it bridges the gap to transactional activities, funds transfer, and ‘electronic commerce.” Yet this level is fraught with concern: concern about information security, reliability, unauthorized access to critical areas, and about individual and corporate rights to privacy. With effective encryption tools and ‘fail safe” firewalls many of these concerns will be alleviated. Industry suggests one should still be wary of running mission critical applications on the Internet. Internally, the concerns will be a lesser issue. Indeed, intranets offer such tremendous opportunities for workgroup enhancement that they can no longer be ignored.

Internet is a new medium that brings with it new needs for training, support and work rules. It is a new means for communicating with clients., for advertising and promotion and another (though easy and free) means of gathering important consumer data. To get there, your Internet support people need to develop a good sense of what works on the Internet and what does not. They must learn how to be client-driven and client-responsive, on time lines that are near light speed. And finally, they must learn that internal competencies must develop at the same rate, or faster than they do within the client community.

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