It can take you to the far corners of the Earth; send pictures from the outer reaches of the universe. It can connect you with an information network unprecedented in the history of Mankind, and its nation of devoted followers are growing by millions each day. Yet to most vice presidents, office managers, human resource administrators, accounts receivable/payable directors, and the rest of the business community, phrases like "information superhighway" and "cyberspace" evoke the nagging dread and guilt of a large unpaid bill; they know it's there, but due to very demanding schedules or often acute technophobia, haven't gotten around to it. The bravest utilize commercial on-line services such as Compuserve or America Online, while the world of Gophers, FTP, and Telnetting remains a vast unknown. Yet as the Internet's popularity continues to overflow out of the college campuses and computer industry, its practical business applications in the world of payrolls, inventory, and bottom-lines is still unclear. As both a resource for business information and a market for services, the question remains for companies large and small: what can the Internet do for us?
Quite a bit, argue the many consulting firms that help companies ease their way onto the Information Superhighway. Not surprisingly, they point to a variety of statistics documenting the exponential growth in the on-line community. While we've all heard about the Communications Revolution ad nauseam, the numbers are still impressive. The Internet spans 135 countries, with current estimates putting its population at 25 million and growing by 2 million each month. Of those new members 75% are businesses, says the Internet Business Center, an information resource for companies doing business on-line, who claim that business domains will outnumber their educational counterparts by the summer of 1995. A full 30% of the Net population use their connection specifically for business purposes, either as a source of information or a market for their product.
Indeed, even the briefest of excursions into cyberspace reveal information in almost every conceivable industry sector. In transportation and equipment, construction, design, insurance and finance, there are libraries, software archives, technical data, and market demographics; issues pertaining to business administration, management science, human resources, risk management and insurance, purchasing and distribution, marketing and sales can be found, from recruiting and employee relations to financial services such as databases of corporate filings and commodity and consumer prices. Business-related bulletin boards (alt.office.management, alt.invest, and various economics-related postings), and industry newsgroups (similarly in fields such as construction, insurance, labor, retail, manufacturing, transportation, real estate, investment and finance services) abound. Thousands of resumes and job opportunities have been uploaded for perusal, and a trip to the Electronic Newsstand reveals a wide variety of business publications currently available on the Internet: The Small Business Gazette, Louis Rukeyser's Wall Street, Inc. Magazine, Business Week, Worth Magazine, Labor Trends, Management Policies and Personnel Law, Employee Relations in Action, Colloquium: A Digest for Investment Managers, and Sloan Management Review are just a few. Says Patricia Seybold, president of her own Boston consulting and marketing firm, "If you're not an active Internet citizen by the mid-1990s, you're likely to be out of business by the year 2000."
Hyperbole like this send shivers up the spines of department managers, small business owners, and CEOs everywhere. What can they do to avoid becoming roadkill on the Information Superhighway? Organize on-line department meetings? Coffee breaks in Gopherspace? "Virtual" company picnics?
Except for a few select industries, they can probably relax. Despite claims to the contrary, the Internet has yet to assimilate itself outside the narrow confines of Academia and the electronic/communication industries that perpetuate it. For most commercial sectors, the percentage of companies with an Internet presence (a registered domain, network, or host) remains about ten, according to an InterNet Info survey. Over half of the Internet population is under 25 years of age, and the vast majority of products advertised there are either marketed directly at that age group (i.e. The Princeton Review--a standardized test preparation service), or are computer-related. Approximately 70% of the resume postings and employment opportunities are exclusively for technology-sector jobs, and many stretches of the Electronic Highway that professionals might find appealing, such as EINet's Statistical Trends or CommerceNet are still "under construction"; promising ideas which have yet to be realized.
For the majority of working professionals, the Internet simply isn't a time-efficient resource.
Most law and financial firms must still rely on expensive fee-based databases (Lexis/Nexis, Data-Star, and Dun & Bradstreet) for case references and up-to-the-minute stock prices, instead of the handful of free options available to them on the Internet.
For the majority of working professionals, the Internet simply isn't a time-efficient resource. An avalanche of industry newsletters, journals, magazines, and newspapers geared specifically for their line of work provide them with far more relevant information than most need or have time for, in an infinitely less onerous manner than tracking down the possibly relevant tidbits scattered throughout cyberspace.
There are, of course, a few exceptions. Travel (reserve two seats on the next flight to Des Moines for the cheapest rates), and other similarly cyber-friendly industries continue to thrive on the Internet. For most companies, however, one of the commercial on-line services (Compuserve being the most business-oriented of the bunch) is a more than adequate foray into the world of networked information. Indeed, unless your company develops software or markets Spring Break travel packages to college campuses, you can probably ignore all the hype about the coming of the Information Superhighway and suffer no ill-effects.
At least for the moment. The advent of the World Wide Web, specifically WWW "browsers" such as Mosaic, is currently changing the face of the Internet. In addition to sounding a possible death knell for commercial on-line services which possess only a fraction of the Internet's resources but offer the friendly interface and structure it previously lacked, these "browsers" have already had profound repercussions on the Internet's place in the business community. Rather than entering strings of commands and searching through directories, would-be cybernauts can now access information and software by clicking highlighted or underlined options on colorful pages, or "servers." This convenient point-and-click interface and modicum of structure WWW browsers offer have made them, in less than two years, the most popular way of navigating the Internet; the number of Web servers is currently just under 6000 and growing by nearly 30% each month.
In addition to giving vendors an accessible, visually pleasing roadside stand on the Superhighway to hawk their wares, World Wide Web servers enable merchants to provide their customers with convenient gateways to related points of interest. The educational newsletter Scholastic, for example, in addition to providing ample opportunity for passers-by to become new subscribers, has options on their server to access a variety of libraries, software, and educational resources for students and teachers alike. In a world where blatant self-promotion is frowned upon, this funneling of information into a single, concise page, in addition advertising their product, provides a genuine service and is more consistent with the spirit of the net community-- namely, shared information for the benefit of all.
This new capacity to re-organize the usable information in cyberspace into convenient, customized servers on the World Wide Web is similarly likely to revolutionize the way the Internet is used as a source of business information. A number of servers devoted entirely to business topics on the Internet already exist; Thomas Ho's Favorite Electronic Commerce WWW Resources is one of the best. This comprehensive (perhaps too comprehensive--it takes fifteen minutes to load at 9600 baud) server includes gateways to industry groups, other financial and professional servers, information resources, electronic "storefronts," and a "Feature of the Day." As the World Wide Web continues to grow, business servers can become increasingly specific, catering to the needs of particular industries, departments, and professions.
Someday. In the meantime, the "network of networks" still remains at least one more revolution away from gaining widespread acceptance into the business community. Faster modems, better software, and cheaper connections will undoubtedly go a long way to remedy this. Yet while the explosion in popularity of the Internet may indeed represent the technological gold rush its proponents believe it to be, most businesses, for now at least, seem content to wait before staking a claim. ¤
Stephen Ward (firstname.lastname@example.org) is currently employed at the Institute of Management and Administration, a New York City-based information service for professionals.
Copyright © 1994 by Stephen Ward. All Rights Reserved.