Chapter 1: Why Do I Care?
Organization: Steven L. Telleen, Ph.D.
Like it or not, we are all cursed with living in interesting times.
This is not meant as a call to action or a premonition of doom, for
there is little
we can do except keep alert and muddle through until the new order
itself clear. It does appear that we are on the verge of a major
point in human social organization. We have the symptoms of a
paradigm shift as described by the late Thomas Kuhn in
classic book on paradigms, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Changes in
and business are happening so fast that the world seems in constant
Our traditional theories of management and organization seem less and
capable of pointing us to useful courses of action. Entire industries
shifting in form, function and importance.
The term "Information Age" seems to be the most
designation for the emerging order. The paradigm shift to information
primary driver already is taking hold as we explain our present, cast
future and recast our history in terms of the information metaphor. A
example can be found in Michael Rothschild’s Bionomics. In this book he provides a table that
quite well how we can use the information paradigm to discern useful
on a macro scale. He wrote his book in 1990, before the advent of the
Wide Web. I have taken the liberty of modifying his table to take this
account and show the magnitude of the changes we are facing.
Telleen from M. Rothchild's Bionomics
The table begins with biological information,
in chemical form. Life is distinguished from other chemical reactions
its ability to encode and copy information, to reproduce itself. Over
some information pools evolved more efficient ways of organizing their
and copying themselves. This continued until an evolution in
structure led to a major revolution in information generation. The
was the nuclear membrane, the revolution was sexual reproduction.
Rothschild calls this phase in the information
"communication," but it has important characteristics beyond our
connotations of that word. What caused the revolution was the ability
break the confines of isolation and add information from other systems.
mixing of information created new information that did not exist in
system before. The rate of innovation exploded exponentially and
created the seeds for the next major evolutionary stage. The new stage
set by the development of intellectual information, information that
as mental patterns in the organism rather than just its chemical
This new type of information was much more
when it came to adding and mixing information, that is learning, but
information pool survived only as long as the individual organism that
it. The evolutionary benefit of passing this intellectual information
one’s offspring, along with the chemical information in the DNA, led to
development of culture. And the invention of mechanical writing started
cycle of information development again, this time for intellectual
Prior to the 1400s, the world was a very different
Ideas and knowledge were confined to localized areas. Sharing and
of new ideas was limited because there was no practical way to share.
Writing was the only mechanism other than verbal communication. While
writing was more efficient than verbal communication for sharing ideas
over time and wide
geographic areas, sharing still remained limited by the number of
available. And, making new copies could only be accomplished by the
laborious process of hand copying.
Human organizations developed around these
In many cultures, an entire profession of scribes sprang up to provide
copies of the existing knowledge. But consider the limitations. In a
like Christianity, which was spreading across many languages, it was
a good idea to translate the Bible into more than one language.
if the organization could not create enough copies in one language, how
it realistically support additional translations? What started out as a
reality, quickly became entrenched as a source of power and prestige.
information gatekeepers had exclusive access to the copies and could
and interpret the content to support their own positions. Once
there was strong pressure to maintain the status quo.
In 1450 another revolution happened. The modern
press was invented, and again the power of information increased
The technology was evolutionary. It did not tax what was known at that
about materials or technology. It was an easy fit. The organizational
social effect, however, was revolutionary. Suddenly ideas and knowledge
be distributed widely, in quantity. Existing controls on information
became ineffective. Information began to flow and mix and generate new
that in turn joined the mix. As the quantity of information exploded,
ways to identify and validate quality information became necessary. The
Method was one mechanism developed to serve this purpose, and the name
have given to this period, the Scientific Revolution, refers to the
methodology developed to manage the information explosion, not the
technology that enabled
The new information from the Scientific Revolution
physical form in an explosion of mechanical and physical conveniences
as the Industrial Revolution. But the printing press also enabled, and
public education, democracy, capitalism and the modern corporation.
organization and culture was transformed radically by the mix of ideas
printing press enabled.
Out of the Scientific Revolution came the seeds
the next stage in the cycle, the world of electronics. As we progress
this path, the advent of the World-Wide Web seems to occupy a position
to that of the printing press in the mechanical encoding cycle. If so,
are in the beginning stages of a revolution that will affect all
of our lives, from business to government, from personal to social.
we have seen the old controls and models break down. How do I control
access to information? who decides what information should be
controlled? How do
I know the quality of information on the web? How do I keep up with the
of information? These questions will get answered. But not until they
shaken the very foundations of the world as we know it.
Most businesses today do not implement new technology for its own sake.
do they implement technology to help move society toward some new macro
of evolution. However, experience shows that many businesses do
implement new technology based on vague business goals and without
identifying many of the critical elements required to reach those
goals. Organizations that are lucky stumble onto many of the critical
elements as they gain experience. But even the lucky ones often fail to
realize the full potential of their investment.
Intranet goals commonly are stated as the specific
that the organization intends to implement first. Make our collateral
available to the field sales force electronically, or provide email and
capability to our employees. While these are useful outcomes, they are
broad enough business goals to justify the introduction of a technology
fundamental as an Intranet. After examining a number of initial project
for their underlying business goals, and talking to many organizations
an Intranet project, there appear to be some common business
behind these initiatives.
A surprising number of executives support an
implementation expecting it to create a fundamental change in the way
do business. They expect this change to come from increases in both
productivity and personal productivity. They expect improved decision
higher quality information and increased information visibility to be
outcomes that support these productivity gains.
The expectations of many people lower in the
can be quite different. Their reasons for implementing an Intranet
focus on easier information access and cost savings. It should be
that the level sponsoring the Intranet initiative can have a
impact on both the goals and what the implementors consider critical
for success. Easier information access and some level of cost reduction
be achieved with a straight technical implementation. Improving
quality, decision making and organizational productivity cannot be
by technology alone. That requires development of the organizational
communication and innovation
At their core, the benefits of an Intranet come from improved
communication and innovation within the organization. Tying this back
to the global order of things, communication is the stage of the
information cycle enabled by
improved copying, and communication enables improved decision making,
productivity, and improved effectiveness. Just as the printing press
the great enabler, lowering the barriers for the average person to
information on paper, the Intranet lowers the barriers for the average
to publish in the electronic world.
Electronic publishing increases the speed and
of information flow across geographic and organization boundaries to a
unobtainable with paper. The web technology, at the core of an
makes electronic publishing easy, inexpensive and accessible to the
employee. It improves information access. But the improved access this
delivers is only an enabler. The rapid sharing of information that
would not have been available electronically, the mixing of information
that otherwise would not be likely to mix, is what creates the
We have shared computerized content electronically
some time. But this has been primarily the sharing of data, usually in
highly structured context of a specific business transaction. Ideas are
different. Ideas are what give data meaning. Ideas are how we share the
of our experiences and explore the possibilities of our futures. And,
is the sharing and mixing of ideas that an Intranet enables. It allows
us to overcome organizational and geographic barriers and share ideas
on a scale
and with an immediacy not available before.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in the business
today is the ability of organizations to innovate and learn. The
of many old Star Trek episodes is increasingly the most durable
skill for business. While access to data can suggest or support
actions, in the end the unpredictable human force of creativity, of new
is what brings competitive advantage and victory.
Innovation and creativity have been the subject of
books and articles. It is a skill that can be strengthened in all of
But in the end, the basic ingredient of human creativity is the mixing
evaluation of ideas. In fact, it appears that the best predictor of
is the number of novel combinations tried, the amount of idea mixing
that takes place. Creative people are creative because they are not
afraid to try
ideas in new combinations, even though most combinations do not survive
reality. The "failures" are not a waste of time, they are the necessary
The same must hold true for innovative
The ability to support diversity and facilitate the mixing of ideas
the ability to learn and innovate. This is the message of many
books going back at least as far as In Search of Excellence.
successful organizations value and encourage contributions and sharing
ideas from all their members. An Intranet takes this process to new
by enabling information sharing, and idea mixing, on a scale previously
Another message from the modern management books,
the goal of many corporate re-engineering projects, is the need to
actions and responsibilities (decisions) closer to the opportunities
points of contact. This make sense from a couple of vantage points.
closest to the action see the problems and opportunities first. They
the most experience applying the current procedures and therefore are
likely to know where to look for improvements. They are the ones who
to implement the new solution so they have a vested interest in making
work, or continuing to modify it until it does.
All of these are valuable reasons for distributing
making, but, there is yet another. Distributed decision making allows
organization to try more ideas, more rapidly. And, as we noted above,
and learning are directly related to the number of new ideas tried.
Mixing of these ideas and experiences is an important ingredient in
this process. The Intranet’s ability to enable the rapid sharing of
directions, experiences and status supports and enhances this effect.
The Intranet enables the learning
inexpensive, easy and forgiving"
This was the off-handed comment of a vice president of information
systems at one of the Regional Bell Operating Companies. It happened
during a conversation we were having on the need for a goals
clarification activity. Her observation, based on her experience with
their Intranet, was pointing out the lack of
business scrutiny that was going into Intranet projects. She clearly
mixed feelings about this situation. On the one hand she felt the need
a business justification, on the other she questioned whether it didn’t
more to do the analysis than to just do the project.
The comment stayed with me because it succinctly
up many of the major challenges traditional MIS professionals face when
an Intranet. It also points out the difference between project
which may not always be cost effective, and goals clarification, which
a larger issue than individual projects and project selection.
On first exposure to the idea, MIS professionals
it hard to believe that this statement is really true. They have heard
"inexpensive" and "easy" before, and every time they have gotten into
hidden technical complexities quickly emerged. Only through experience
they discover that this technology really is both inexpensive and easy.
leads to a second challenge, it gets out of control.
We tend to apply what we know to new situations,
in the case of Intranet development this often takes the form of
the implementation as just another programming project. Users are
or involved in Joint Application Development exercises. The results are
and MIS develops or installs the applications. The technical
organization may be commissioned to create or translate the content .
the "first" Intranet pages go online.
Before long, pages and web servers are springing
everywhere as users discover that the technology makes publication easy
for them to master, and most of the software they need to get started
cheap or free. It is so easy they no longer have to wait for MIS to get
to their needs, so they don’t.
In most cases, the challenge at this point is not
result of things being out of control, but of people feeling out of
In the past IT professionals controlled the flow of computerized
by virtue of the technology barrier. Almost overnight, this barrier has
down. Some IT professionals welcome this change with open arms, others
to great lengths to try to impose new barriers in the name of control.
The reality is that information control is not gone, only shifting back
business owners. And this shift creates the new challenge, a change in
There is no question that the role of IT will
The final chapter of this book, on Intranet futures, will look at
directions the MIS and IT organizations might take. Whatever the
it is clear that this technology is driving IT functionality quickly
enabling knowledge workers to meet their own information needs. The
of MIS is shifting from doing the management of the information for
workers to delivering an infrastructure that supports self-service
information management and use.
A few words about why this technology is so
The Intranet technology is evolutionary, not revolutionary. It consists
two sets of standards that work together to provide the environment for
revolution discussed above. One set of standards, the Internetworking
(IP), standardizes the way multi-vendor computer systems communicate
each other. The other set of standards, the web standards, standardizes
the content and makes it system and application independent. These
essentially eliminated the need for information content providers or
to be concerned about vendor-specific variations in most content
and user viewing tools.
Because it is evolutionary, the underlying
infrastructure (and in many cases the system software infrastructure)
be used with little or no modification. The web standards not only
new information, but provide a form of Rosetta Stone for legacy
and data as well. And, if the software vendors get out of the way, we
may have system independent standards for application logic and object
as well, which will make application logic both machine independent and
It is important to recognize that the tremendous
of technology enabled by an Intranet is based on standards, because
vendors are looking for the first U-turn that will take us back to the
of technological Babel. Experienced Intranet organizations are
to understand the very real savings in development and maintenance
that the Intranet standards provide. They tend to select products based
implementation of these standards, and set policies that discourage
non-standard features in commercial products. Organizations
their first Intranet may be less concerned about preserving
standards, because they do not have first hand experience with the
The message, if you are implementing an Intranet, stick to the
available to multiple vendors. In later chapters we will discuss when
how proprietary advances can be safely implemented.
your organization and how you do business
The introduction of an Intranet is not a revolutionary technology
change, but it can create a revolutionary change in the way your
organization relates to information, and hence the way it operates.
Throughout this book we will
explore some of these changes from different perspectives. Below is a
of the basic principles that underlie most of the observations,
and pronouncements in this book. You already have seen some discussed
this chapter. If I have done an adequate job, these principles should
more practical to you as you read the book, not because of the "how to"
but because of the different perspective these principles provide on
assumptions and options.
The basic principles:
Now that you have the keys, it is time to move on and look at the role
management in organizations.
- Organizational Latency (Surface to Volume
Ratios slow down centralized organizations)
- Information Drives Function versus Function
- Push versus Pull Information
- Self Service versus Do For Me Support
- Communication/Coordination versus
- Distributed Decision Making versus Central
- Information Access versus Information Quality
- Information Context versus Information Content
- Standardize the Known (don't lock yourself
into investing in incremental gains)
- Exploit the Unknown (this is where new
knowledge, hence the real value, lies)
Original Version: October, 1996
Last Updated: November, 1996
Copyright 1996 - Steven L.