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IT STRATEGY – Today, information is a commodity. It’s time we started

We’re always being told that we live in the information age, but few people actually dwell on what this means for business and society. In school we learn about the iron age, and recognise it was important in some way. But we don’t appreciate just how revolutionary the manufacture and use of iron was to people whose idea of hi-tech was a sharp piece of flint. Equally, we seem to be blase about the importance of information to the economy now. When the iron age began, if your core competency was building wooden weapons, you pretty quickly learned that this new product was going to kill off your business. But today, some companies and governments think that developing and maintaining their sources of information is an add-on to their core business. Yet failure to control information is as dangerous as trying to fight iron swords with wooden ones. Let’s take three simple examples. Firstly, there is the terrible case of the Columbine High School massacre. (In fact, the spate of racial and homophobic bomb attacks in this country falls into the same category.) Where terrorism was once largely the province of state-sponsored, highly organised and technically proficient groups, thanks to the spread of information on the Internet, almost anyone can build a bomb in their garage at home. This information was always out there. During the second world war, the UK government even trained groups of average citizens to make home-made bombs in case a Nazi invasion was successful. But the Internet has made this deadly information available to disaffected youths and twisted extremists anywhere in society. In a way, it has democratised terrorism. But it also means, in a business context, that information has a habit of spreading where you would rather it didn’t, so that it loses value. Information you regard as giving you a competitive advantage today means almost nothing tomorrow. As Pat Gelsinger, a VP at Intel, once said, “If we don’t eat our own children, someone else will.” This means we must continually reassess what information we value and how we use it. Hoping that any information will stay where you want it in today’s digital, communication-driven, information age is futile. The second example refers to another tragedy, the war with Serbia. When the conflict first flared there was a spate of stories warning about the possibility of Serb-inspired cyber-terrorism against NATO powers and businesses that operate in its member countries. And when the Chinese embassy was bombed, Chinese-inspired cyber terrorism actually happened – although in the event, hacking into and disabling the US Department of Energy Web site (and some other non-critical Web sites of the US Federal Government) only hinted at the potential for information terrorism. This is a form of economic warfare. The states of the middle east were able to destabilise the world economy in the 1970s with oil controls – we were then in the energy age, not the information age. Now, almost anyone with a bright brain, a PC and a modem, can disrupt anything from the humblest home computer to corporate information systems or even entire government bodies. If information is the life-blood of companies and the economy at large, protecting it isn’t just a risk issue – it’s the risk issue. (One more point on that bombing mission that went wrong: CIA apologists might argue that the Clinton administration’s defence cuts caused outdated information to be supplied to the air force. But that’s just lame. You don’t need multi-million-dollar spy satellites or covert operatives to work out where an embassy is – just a tourist map. The lesson here is that even simple and widely available information, if not kept up-to-date or used by the right people, can cause major headaches in this fast-moving world.) The third example of the importance of the information age comes in the form of Bill Gates and his plans for world domination. Through his $5bn deal with AT&T, Gates now has a huge stake in Telewest, one of the big three cable operators in the UK. He already owns the computing platform for most PC users. He’s building – via his Teledesic operation – a $9bn network of 300 comms satellites around the world, which is due to go on-line in 2003. That’s a lot of money to you and me (although less to the recently $100bn-rated Gates), but he seems to know what he’s doing. In the same way that Rockefeller realised at the birth of the energy age (well, the oil age at least) that control of oil wells and gas retailers was a short cut to massive influence and riches, Gates has come to a similar conclusion for the information age. No wonder the Department of Justice is worried about Microsoft. It’s too easy simply to trot out the usual entreaties to FDs to look closely at their information risk management, information security and information dissemination. The fact is that the ways in which you treat information are important, but almost everyone knows that now. What’s needed is a change in the entire attitude to information as a commodity. There’s an old story about Rothschilds, which says that the firm used carrier pigeons to get news of the result of the battle of Waterloo back to London more quickly than traditional messengers, so it could trade more effectively. In 1815, that information may have been valuable. But now, as soon as anything happens anywhere in the world, you can find out about it almost straight away from dozens of different sources: the Net, CNN, BBC World Service, Sky News or buzzed to your pager. Which makes the value of having that information precisely zero, the cost of not having it huge. So FDs must do the knowledge management thing; accept that the network is the computer; get involved in e-commerce. Just remember that doing these things isn’t opting in to some brave new world of information-enabled companies. It’s just keeping you out of the outdated world that is being left behind. Information, and the technology to organise it, is the life-blood of commerce now. Companies that treat information as a luxury may as well be making wooden swords.

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