Reporter's Notebook: Sign of the Times

ORLANDO (03/10/2000) - It is a sign of the times when a button-down corporation such as General Electric Corp. hires the likes of John Perry Barlow to give the closing keynote speech at a premier technology conference, the General Electric Information Systems EC-Forum.

Specifically, it means that GE means business with the obligatory little "e".

Barlow, the ex-rancher and Grateful Dead lyricist who likes to style himself as the Thomas Jefferson of the Internet, is the antithesis of the corporation man.

When Barlow, dressed in black denim and leather, boasted to the crowd of GE customers and executives that, "I have never held a real job," it was to drive home the point that the Internet really does change everything.

If someone such as Barlow can reinvent himself as a sought-after consultant in the boardrooms of America's Fortune 100, then it really does seem like anything is possible.

His job, as strange as it may sound, was to cap off three days of sessions on EDI (electronic data interchange), XML, EAI (enterprise application integration), and lightning-speed supply chains with a vision of where it is all going.

And his message, distinctly neo-60's and antiauthoritarian, resonated among the attendees. This was not because Barlow's vision was particularly pointed -- in fact it lacked focus -- but because most of the seasoned business professionals listening already had imagined as much and more on their own.

They are in near universal agreement that the changes we are about to see in business-to-business e-commerce will dwarf all previous changes wrought by technology on business.

Barlow spoke of a global economy in which companies spontaneously organize on the fly to accomplish specific business goals. He likened these entities to objects in the object-oriented model of software development. In other words, we will start to see small, highly functional organizations that assemble temporarily to perform more complex tasks.

In such a world, the corporation as we know it will cease to exist, and the nation state will become largely irrelevant.

This is the kind of talk that only a few years ago would never have been heard at a GE-sponsored event. But not only was it heard, it was surprisingly well received. Harvey Seegers, president and CEO of newly formed GE Global Exchange Services publicly sought Barlow's advice on how the Internet will change organized religion.

Bob Powell, a consultant at Results Corporation who works with GE Global Exchange Services on some of the company¹s biggest accounts, was singularly impressed by Barlow's ability to "think outside the lines."

Perhaps some of this has to be taken with a grain of salt. After all, the entire event took place at a Disney World resort where fantasy rules.

But the fact remains that when GE, historically one of America's most stodgy corporations, starts publicly courting the John Perry Barlows of the world, things have changed; truly a sign of the times.

(Mark Leon is an InfoWorld contributing reporter.)

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