Internet Opens New Chapter on Business Reading

FRAMINGHAM (07/24/2000) - With the mind-boggling success of the Harry Potter books and the annual rush of "what to read on your summer vacation" articles, the simple act of reading is now very much in the news. This makes now as good a time as any to ponder the following question: Five years into the Internet era, have there been any significant changes in the way we read?

It makes sense to write about this topic in Computerworld because the technologically oriented business community is arguably the most active area of change, rivaled only by college students and other twentysomethings. In the broader consumer market, reading habits don't seem to have shifted very much at all. Whether one reads novels, nonfiction, newspapers or The New Yorker, traditional print products still dominate.

But it seems that business reading is changing fundamentally. What was once mostly a matter of general-interest browsing is now evolving into much more of a specific, on-demand experience.

To see why, let's look back at how things were before the Internet. If you were like most people, you probably tried to keep up with your work reading requirements through selected sets of newspapers, magazines and possibly books.

Since maintaining your own personal and/or business library was often expensive in terms of time and space, you probably threw away nearly all your newspapers and magazines; only your books were spared.

Since you knew that most publications were destined for the Dumpster, your business reading likely included articles that were necessary to do that day's job and those that might someday be necessary. The implicit assumption was that if you didn't see an article when it was new, you'd probably never see it. We all know serious knowledge workers who used to - and perhaps still do - regularly scan a wide range of business publications to reduce their worry about possibly missing something.

The Internet changes this in two fundamental ways. Most obviously, old articles no longer disappear. The cost of storing documents on the Internet is close to zero, and search engines, portals and specialized Web sites make finding older documents relatively easy and reliable, at least in theory. As a result, we don't really have to worry so much about articles being lost.

Equally important, the supply of relevant reading materials has increased enormously. The Web makes mass-market publishing far more affordable; thus there are more sources than ever for potentially useful information.

In most business fields, there's simply no way that we can justifiably spend the time necessary to keep up with reading material that might be useful.

Consciously or unconsciously, the reading patterns of knowledge workers are changing accordingly. A significant portion of reading time is currently shifting from "just-in-case" to "just-in-time" activity. In other words, the bulk of our business reading experience will steadily move away from general knowledge gathering and will become much more of a transactional, on-demand experience. Increasingly, we will find and absorb business reading material if and when we need to.

It is indeed ironic that Web reading is still often referred to as "browsing," even though this is nearly the opposite of what is actually happening.

Knowledge worker information needs are expanding rapidly and becoming less predictable. The only conceivable way to deal with this unprecedented learning challenge is to turn business reading into a reliable, on-demand transactional experience. Fortunately, this is a task for which the Internet is almost ideally qualified to deliver.

David Moschella is vice president of knowledge strategy at MeansBusiness Inc., an Internet start-up. Contact him at dmoschella@earthlink.net.

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