Business has always been about information and communications. After all, if we cannot communicate or exchange information with our customers or suppliers, business is going to be slack - to say the least.
We live in the middle of an information and communications revolution and our modern industrial society is arguably a result of a similar such revolution. The 19th century saw the explosive development of the railways. Not by chance, this went hand in hand with the universal penny post and the commoditisation of printing and publishing. The resulting information and communications infrastructure facilitated so much of what we now take for granted in modern business. Its legacy includes mass markets, international investment, commuting, trade unions, office bureaucracy, bank holidays - the list is endless. Indeed, any glance at the press of the 1840s will produce a strong sense of deja vu. One encounters stories of revolutionary change, new investment opportunities, big deals - and failures, worker unrest, and worries about a disintegrating society. In short, much the same as you would find in a look at the newspapers of the 1990s.
That we are in the midst of a new revolution must be obvious to everyone.
The significance of its various strands may be less so. There is a revolution in the underlying technologies: optical fibre, mobile radio, satellite broadcasting, cable TV, digital telephony and television. There is a revolution in the services being offered: interactive television, the Internet, video-conferencing and telephone marketing. There is a revolution in the regulatory framework, with a consequent revolution in the structure of several industries. These separate revolutions, of course, reinforce each other. In many ways, the communications revolution has only just begun. However, some of its effects are already obvious - even if not always recognised as such. It has caused, or at least stimulated, increased competition, globalisation, the rising tempo of business, downsizing and the rise of consumer power.
Information technology has, of course, stimulated much of this revolution. However, it is itself affected by it. Traditional models of computing - mainframe, desktop and client-server - are being extended to recognise the nature of this networked world. And being the IT industry, it has invented a new piece of jargon for it - networked computing.
So much for theory - but what is the manager to do about all this?
What are the keys to managing in the information age? It is important to have some knowledge about the broad technological developments. But it is much more important to understand how these technology-driven changes relate to business fundamentals. These remain, as ever, delighting customers with quality products and services; competing through cost and innovation; motivating and training skilled employees. Looked at this way, of course, business has always had networks. These networks - of customers with supporting channels; suppliers and partners; employees and their business processes - are more important than ever. It is these networks that networked computing seeks to support.
Customers have more knowledge about products from more suppliers than ever before. At the same time, falling barriers to market entry create more competition to supply these customers. Customer access, image and loyalty become all important. It is not surprising that we see innovation in all these areas. Computer telephony systems and the World Wide Web offer new means of reaching customers. There have been some very successful innovations in the former.
The World Wide Web is full of companies - and these include your competitors - seeking to attract your customers. These new routes to market often depend on the strength of company brands. The recent rise in the popularity of loyalty cards is, of course, one way of embracing customers within the company's electronic network.
One method of gaining access to new customers is through acquisition or partnership, and increased focus on costs is often the response to the intensified competition for customers - with the consequent phenomena of down-sizing, concentrating on core competencies and outsourcing. In both cases, we see extreme change in the nature of the relationships between a company and its suppliers and partners.
Networked computing is based on the premise that the information systems of an individual company must facilitate, not inhibit, such relationships.
Increasingly, systems are connected via e-mail, electronic data interchange, video conferencing, message switching and a whole host of other techniques. Common standards have become essential to facilitate such inter-company connections.
Obviously no revolution takes place without human cost. It has always been a fundamental business tenet that people are the most important asset.
More than ever, a company will succeed or fail as a result of its ability to attract, train, motivate and retain those who have the best skills.
In this regard, the human network within a company is perhaps the most important network of all.
Here, too, information and communications technologies can help. Indeed, another piece of jargon - the Intranet - has been invented to recognise this internal aspect of networked computing. Employees can gain more access to more information through the techniques developed for the World Wide Web. E-mail can improve two-way communications channels. Mobile and home computers provide more employee flexibility. The whole thrust of these technologies is to support those working patterns that suit the business and the people - not the other way round.
Frightened by all this? You shouldn't be. Like all other communications revolutions, networked computing is a force for liberation. It gives you more choice to match the technology to your business needs. It enables you to enter new markets. It helps you and your employees to organise work more efficiently. Most importantly, it gives you - and your competitors - a fresh opportunity to thrive in this new era.