Information Management for the Intelligent Organization

Chapter 7: The Internet and Online Databases: Scanning on the Information Highway

The Internet
". . . the best example of global information infrastructure that we have. "
(Vinton Cerf, President of the Internet Society, 1994 interview)


Selections from Chapter 7

Online Databases

... Table 6.6 Online Databases for Environmental Scanning

...

Internet Resources and Services

Internet resources and services are quickly becoming strategic information tools for
a growing number of commercial, government, and non-profit organizations. The
Internet is a seamless web of over 25,000 computer networks that exchange data
through a suite of common communications protocol, based primarily on the
Transmission Control Protocol and the Internet Protocol. For the past few years, the
Internet has been more than doubling its size every year. Towards the close of 1994,
an estimated 20 million people worldwide may be connected by the Internet.
According to the Internet Society, the volunteer organization that promotes Internet
use, three-quarters of the growth came from newly registered commercial networks,
with 83 percent of the networks registered belonging to businesses or their research
laboratories. Each day, hundreds of thousands of people on the Internet exchange
electronic mail, participate in online discussion groups, and explore new sites and
resources. The Internet is many things to many people, for some, it is the world's
largest electronic mail network, for others, it is a global bulletin board, a huge public
library, a sprawling software storehouse, and for many business managers, the
Internet represents a once-in-a-lifetime marketing and distribution opportunity. Yet
the most striking feature of the Internet, rising above the universality and
robustness of its technical connections, is that net users have evolved their own
information culture based on the norms of open access, information sharing, and
lending a helping hand. Howard Rheingold (1993) describes the experience as
belonging to a virtual community that operates like a

gift economy in which people do things for one another out of a spirit
of building something between them, rather than a spreadsheet-
calculated quid pro quo. When that spirit exists, everybody gets a little
extra something, a little sparkle, from their more practical transactions;
different kinds of things become possible when this mind-set pervades.
... The same strategy of nurturing and making use of loose
information-sharing affiliations across the Net can be applied to an
infinite domain of problem areas, from literary criticism to software
evaluation. It's a good way for a sufficiently large, sufficiently diverse
group of people to multiply their individual degree of expertise, and I
think it could be done even if the people aren't involved in a
community other than their place of employment or their area of
specialization. (Rheingold 1993, p.59)

Organizations connected to the Internet can break out from the traditional model of
managing information as a form of exercising control over the integrity of and
access to information. In the Internet-enabled paradigm, information management
may be based simultaneously on widespread access to an expanded range of
information resources, and on the capability to implement and sustain far-reaching
yet coherent information strategies that bestow competitive advantage. Mary Cronin
elaborates,

The Internet delivers what Peter Drucker calls the most important
information resource, awareness of the world around them, directly to
the desktops of all the employees connected to the network. ...
Employees directly connected to the global network can provide their
company with important competitive information. Each staff member
using the Internet may be in contact with hundreds of outside people
in the course of a day - including potential and existing customers,
competitors, suppliers, and international partners. Well-informed
employees can spot marketing opportunities, the emergence of new
competition, unmet customer needs, and a host of vital information -
but only if the company has organized its internal information-sharing
structure to incorporate their insights. ... Businesses operating within
the traditional model are slower to recognize these opportunities
because of their preoccupation with information control. On the other
hand, companies ready to move away from a hierarchical information
access model and develop an information management strategy based
on distributed information access can reap the benefits of a better
motivated, more flexible, better-informed workforce. (Cronin 1994,
p.16-18)

Yet we do not visualize the Internet as a network for snooping. The Internet's code
of conduct, demurely called 'netiquette,' does not tolerate activities that betray the
spirit of sharing and collaboration. Net denizens who enforce netiquette have
reacted forcefully against instances of uncanvassed advertising, and will come down
even more harshly on unethical or clandestine intrusions. Businesses sensitive to
security threats will erect firewalls against illegal access and implement
authentication procedures that shut out unwelcome prying. Our belief is that as the
world's largest network of open sources of information, the Internet is so rich with
legal, above-board information provided as part of marketing, customer support,
and public service activities that there is no need to contemplate risky attempts to
pilfer even more information. The challenge, as we shall see in the following
sections, is mastering the various tools for knowledge sharing and knowledge
retrieval in order to prospect this vast but unruly information lode. In the end,
organizations can use the Internet as a knowledge exchange - "companies need the
knowledge of all their workers, not just the privileged insight of top management.
They need to establish bi-directional paths to the knowledge of suppliers and
strategic allies. Most of all, companies need first-hand knowledge about what
customers and prospects want, and be able to turn these perceived needs into
successful products and services." (Locke 1994, p.22) With widespread information
and expertise sharing, the industry as a whole becomes more knowledgeable, more
responsive to customer needs, and more innovative in applying emerging
technologies. The logic of competition is now based upon a shrewd perception of the
business environment and the agile development of niches and opportunities. In
other words, the winning organizations are those that have learned to be more
skillful at harvesting knowledge and converting it into strategies, actions, and goods
and services.

The services and resources available on the Internet may be broadly divided into
tools for sharing knowledge and tools for retrieving knowledge (Table 6.6). The
main knowledge sharing tools are electronic mail, discussion groups, newsgroups,
and electronic journals. The main knowledge retrieval tools are file transfers,
gophers, Wide Area Information Servers, and World Wide Web Servers.

Table 6.6 Knowledge Sharing and Retrieval Tools on the Internet

Knowledge Sharing Tools

...

Knowledge Retrieval Tools

...

... Table 6.7 A Selection of Gopher Business Information Resources

...

The World-Wide Web (WWW), the most recent of the knowledge navigation and
retrieval systems, may be thought of as a huge information space that has been
mapped as networks of hypertext documents that are interconnected by active links
and pointers. Each WWW document contains many hypertext links that may point
to other parts of the same document or to other information objects on computer
servers located in another part of the world. WWW documents can be in many
formats, including plain text, Postscript, graphics, video, and sound. In fact, WWW
documents commonly combine color graphics, formatted text, and sometimes
sound and video. Well laid out WWW documents are a pleasure to read and
behold, and also offers the multimedia realism of looking at high resolution images
or video clips, and listening to sound recordings. Hypertext links are embedded in
the keywords of the document's text, and may be activated by simply pointing and
selecting the links (with a computer mouse, for example). A user begins by viewing
a WWW document, selecting links to follow to subsequent documents, and
repeating the process to develop an individualized information browsing trail.
Some WWW documents are indexes that the user may search by entering
keywords. The result of the search is another virtual document containing links to
the documents found by the search. WWW documents also support on-screen
forms that users may complete to enter a search, order a product, answer a
questionnaire, and so on. In fact there are really only two classes of operations on
the web - following hypertext links, and searching indexes.

The elegant simplicity of the WWW is all the more dazzling in the light of its
flexibility and versatility. The hypertext model provides an expressive structure for
densely interconnecting documents and information objects that maximize the
potential for fruitful exploration and discovery. Users search the web via a natural
point-and-click interface that activates transparent gateways to information
resources in a wide range of media. The same WWW interface may be used to
connect to Gophers, read Usenet newsgroups, do file transfers, login to remote
computers, and search WAIS databases. In March 1994, WWW byte traffic exceeded
Gopher byte traffic on the US Internet backbone (NSFNet) for the first time (Treloar
1994). Business Week already accolades the WWW as the "killer application" for the
Internet, doing for net use what Visicalc, the first spreadsheet, did for the
microcomputer market. Business organizations seem especially receptive to the
capabilities of the WWW to present an attractive, inviting interface that promotes
sales and marketing, and are among the fastest growing groups to set up new
WWW sites.

Table 6.8 shows a small selection of WWW information resources on the Internet
that may be of interest to business users. Each resource is identified by name and a
short description, as well as its Uniform Resource Locator: an all-purpose format for
specifying Internet resources, following the general format: resource-
type://host.machine/path- or port-information/. Because the WWW is still very
young in its development, resources on the web are constantly changing. Most
WWW clients provide a link to a What's New page to alert users of new or changed
resources. The National Science Foundation's Internet Network Information Center
is a good place to start, while business users may wish to visit helpful Web
documents such as the Internet Business Centre, EINet Business and Commerce
home page, and Open Market's Commercial Sites Index.

Table 6.8 A Selection of WWW Business Information Resources

Business Intelligence on the Internet

It has been estimated that in mid-1994, two new Internet accounts are added every
four minutes, and one of these accounts is from a commercial site (Thorell 1994). To
what extent are organizations using the Internet to enhance performance and scan
the environment? This is an important question, given the mindboggling
munificence of open information resources that dwell on the Internet, waiting to be
discovered and distilled. Case studies of organizations using the Internet are starting
to appear, and a few high-technology companies provide sketches of how
knowledge sharing and retrieval tools on the Internet are being leveraged.

Digital Equipment Corporation has been a long-time user and supporter of the
Internet. Among its many Internet successes may be counted the use of the World-
Wide Web to provide marketing information to customers throughout the world, a
pioneering program that allows Internet users to test drive its new server
computers, bundling of WWW client software with every Digital computer sold,
and a heavy internal use of the WWW and the Internet as a strategic information
and communication resource (Jarvenpaa and Ives 1994). Digital claims that some
fifty of its employees regularly monitor Digital product-related newsgroups, where
over 84,000 users every month share their problems and solutions, and exchange
opinions about Digital products, customer service, competing products, and so on
(Thorell 1994).

...

That the Internet may be "the next major phase in the evolution of the competitive
intelligence function" is a thought-provoking prediction. A higher form of
competitive intelligence is evolved when businesses and organizations integrate the
resources and services on the Internet into their organizational learning processes.
The organization's knowledge network expands as more people in the organization
tap into external knowledge, and as connections are made with relevant expertise
and advice outside the organization. Businesses develop deeper insight about their
customers, competitors, and technologies; broaden their intellectual horizons; and
generally become more swift-footed in responding to market needs and external
opportunities. Businesses new to the net are initially enticed by the access to open
information sources and the access to potential markets, but access to information
and access to markets are only the opening gambits, the longer term value of the
Internet could be the facilitation of a new information and learning culture that
enables organizations to adapt themselves as nimbly as the external environment
transmutes.

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