In the corporate world, Internet technology can do more than make pretty Web pages, provide employees online access to the personnel manual and enable new ways for the corporation to invade the privacy of their employees.
Internet technology can facilitate the re-engineering of corporations by making the paths of communications more flexible. No longer is it necessary to have 20 layers of management between the worker on the shop floor and the CEO.
The upside is a more streamlined corporation in which the CEO has a far better understanding of the details of how the corporation works. The downside is the CEO has a far better understanding of the details of how the corporation works.
Once upon a time, when hierarchy was king in corporations, information was filtered, summarized, annualized and simplified at each level as the data bubbled to the top. In this model, the further up you were in the company, the fewer details you would see and the more likely it was that you would have your own secretary or executive assistant to guard your door and screen your calls. You only had to deal with what seemed important to your personal protector.
Networks have changed this idyllic structure. It is now rare for corporate executives to have a private secretary or executive assistant to protect them from the minutia of corporate life, and e-mail gives any employee access to the CEO.
For some executives in some companies this has been a blessing. For others it has been a disaster. It takes a specific kind of skill to see patterns in chaff and not have them be as substantive as faces in clouds. A potential CEO candidate that is not fluent in the use of the Internet and who does not type well has a hard task of explaining why during the interview process. This is somewhat of a reversal of the time when any woman applying for any kind of job at most corporations had to take a typing test.
Executives who once relied on layers of bureaucracy to shield themselves from too much detail are so buried in details that finding a big picture (or even any picture) is a daunting task. Hundreds of memos and thousands of facts flow in a churning torrent, with the executive seeing more of them in one day than executives would have seen in one year a few years ago.
Some modern executives seem to thrive on this. But many others are overwhelmed. These executives need help. It seems to me that the same content-parsing tools that are being used to sort the mess that is the Web can be used to sort through the mess that is corporate information. I expect this is being done, but I don't know about it. This column is the result of a lament from one of those old executives who is now looking for an executive assistant so he can wind the clock back just a little bit.
But that seems like the wrong answer.
Disclaimer: Some of Harvard is dedicated to old ideas, but I didn't check to see if the Business School is one of them, so the above must be my observation.
Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.