Sir Peter Bonfield Chief executive of BT and companion of the IM 'In future, the most successful companies will be made up of people who have quick and easy access to the information that they need in order to make informed choices about the best way to meet their customers' needs, and, crucially, are also given the responsibility and authority to do something about it'.
Do you really want to read yet more about the digital age and how it will revolutionise the way we work? As you struggle with information technology that always seems to arrive late, costs too much and never quite does all that was promised, and as the paper piles up in your supposedly paperless office, are you getting a little tired of hearing about the all-singing, all-dancing, on-line, virtual reality, global, multimedia, digital tomorrow? If you are, I can't say that I entirely blame you. But I'd like to take a couple of minutes of your time to persuade you to think again.
For, unsettling as it may seem, I am convinced that the next few years will see major changes in the way organisations are structured, managed and run. These changes will be demanded by customers, made possible by new technology, and it will be those organisations that want to survive, let alone succeed, which will embrace them. I believe it is the combination of these factors that will bring about the new information age.
The factors lying behind the technology push are widely recognised. Microprocessor performance continues to double every 18 months or so, computing and telecommunications are converging and ever greater amounts of information, be it text, data, voice or video, are available in digital form and so can be transmitted, manipulated and managed in new ways. BT's telephone networks are now intelligent, becoming large, distributed computing networks, with more functionality and capability than could have been imagined even five years ago. And we are seeing rapid developments in digital technologies and techniques - in mobile, satellite, terrestrial broadcasting, and the ubiquitous explosion of the Internet.
The customer pull is, as yet, less visible, but it is becoming increasingly apparent. Customers with access to more information are becoming more demanding. The 'one size fits all' approach is no longer considered good enough. The digital age therefore presents both a challenge and the means to meet it. How can we, as managers, respond?
To date, computerisation has been mostly concerned with automating existing business functions - collecting, compiling and manipulating large amounts of data in relatively simple transactions. But we now must move away from thinking about managing data towards thinking about managing information.
By that I mean what information do we have about our customers, how do we get it, and how can we use it to help us run our organisations and meet our customers' needs? In the digital age, information technology is not just there to help us do existing things better, it is there to help us do new things altogether.
We are seeing a number of exciting developments where information is seen as a hugely important asset in its own right rather than just something that emerges as little more than a by-product of an organisation's activities.
And analysis and packaging of that information is becoming a key competitive differentiator in many industries.
An increasing number of companies are 'data mining', in other words, looking again at all the data gathered as part of their day-to-day operations on their customers, suppliers, and their own performance. They are seeing what new things can be learnt, and how it can help them achieve their business objectives.
For example, supermarkets are now able to analyse in much greater detail than ever before what influences their customers' buying patterns. By combining this knowledge with the real-time information coming from their electronic tills and, with direct communications links to their suppliers around the world, they can restock their shelves more quickly, economically and effectively than ever before. Highly targeted marketing campaigns are becoming commonplace. With information available more quickly, more widely and at much lower cost, and with much less need for large and cumbersome administrative structures, the whole concept of centralised and hierarchical management is now coming under scrutiny. For instance, as it becomes cheaper and easier to move information to people rather than people to information, companies are questioning whether centralised structures can enable them to respond quickly enough to market demands. So who needs a head office or, indeed, any offices anyway?
We are already seeing a move away from hierarchical structures and towards team structures, with a consequent change in what is expected of managers.
Rather than spending their time gathering information, monitoring performance, and enforcing standards, managers are being seen more as team leaders, coaches even, bringing people and resources together to meet specific needs and deliver specific benefits.
In future, the most successful companies will be made up of people who have quick and easy access to the information that they need in order to make informed choices about the best way to meet their customers' needs and, crucially, are also given the responsibility and authority to do something about it.
If there's one vital word that provides a focus for what I've been saying here it's not technology or information or even management, but relationship. For relationships within organisations will change - between the people at the centre and the people closest to the customer.
Relationships across organisations will change - partnerships and alliances will become ever more necessary to meet rapidly changing circumstances. And, most importantly of all, relationships between organisations and their customers will change. We will increasingly have the opportunity to deal with each of our customers as individuals, meeting their own unique requirements and expectations. And companies that harness this will, in the end, become closer to their customers and will, in the process, become better at meeting their needs.
The digital revolution presents us with many challenges but also provides us with the tools and wherewithal to meet them. Get that sorted and you have every chance of succeeding - but I never said it was going to be easy.