Highway is Transforming American Companies
115 Fifth Ave.
New York, NY 10003
Doing Business on the Internet: How the Electronic<
by Mary J. Cronin<
Publisher: Van Nostrand Reinhold<
308 pages, softcover.
Walk into any bookstore and you're bound to find a shelf with at least a dozen books covering the subject of business management and efficiency. Nearby you'll find a shelf overflowing with new books about the Internet.
Highway is Transforming American Companies
115 Fifth Ave.
New York, NY 10003
Until now these two shelves of books had little in common. "Doing Business on the Internet" is the first book to link these two related topics.
The author of the book, Mary J. Cronin, works as the university librarian at Boston College, and teaches information management at Boston College School of Management. She brings to the subject the well-informed mind of a librarian, tempered with the pragmatism of someone closely familiar with real-world business practices.
The result is a book that is highly readable, yet meticulously referenced and footnoted. "Doing Business on the Internet" is must reading for information managers in companies large and small. The book also has an audience with persons who have a general interest in the socio-dynamics of online communications.
The Nature and Scope of the Book
Doing Business on the Internet is a persuasive book as much as a descriptive one. The heart of this tome is a series of case studies describing how companies are using the Internet. To assemble these case studies, Cronin visited and communicated with information managers known for evangelizing the benefits of Internet connection within their companies. She then conducted follow-up interviews via electronic mail. The results of her investigations are assembled together with an aim to persuade as well as decribe.
To persuade what? To persuade businesspersons that a whole slew of unforeseeable benefits can arise by connecting their employees to the Internet.
The central thesis of this book is aptly illustrated in the section where Cronin explains how IBM was at first reluctant to offer Internet access to its employees. You would think that a behemoth computer company would be the first to comprehend the benefits of Internet access. Not so. Until a few years ago the prevailing attitude at IBM was that everything that IBM employees needed to know could be found on IBM's internal company networks.
These days IBM managers have arrived at the more enlightened point of view that there may be times where valuable information and ideas could possibily exists outside IBM's internal company networks. In those rare instances, it could be useful for IBM employees to conduct searches on the Internet.
Information as the Fundamental Building Block of Business
Cronin starts with the basic principle that, "information is the fundamental building block of any type of product or service." She then goes on to discuss how information can provide a crucial competitive advantage: "Executives have long recognized the importance of information for competitive advantage... In order to make better decisions, chief executives and top level managers require fresh information about trends in the economy and the marketplace, about the activities of competitors, new developments in technology, and new product opportunities."
In the information age, to be informed is to be armed with knowledge. And a primary way of becoming informed these days - - - is to be connected to the Internet.
Improved Communications with Customers
The Internet offers more than information and ideas, though. The net can help forge new ties between customers and companies. Since the cost of sending electronic mail is far less expensive than the cost of a phone call or letter, companies can use e-mail to communicate regularly with prospective customers as well as with established customers. Indeed, companies can set themselves apart from their competitors by making it a practice to respond prompty and thoughtfully to "external e-mail." In Cronin's words: "If a company decides to distinguish itself through the quality of its customer service organization, the network can be a decisive asset in achieving this goal."
Of course, communicating with customers is a two way street. Customers benefit by getting answers to their questions. But companies also benefit by getting speedy feedback about their products or services. The Internet provides a new type of "intimacy" between company and consumer. In a very real sense, the Internet can help establish bonds of cross-loyalty of a whole new order. While some companies may cringe at the the invariable "closeness of contact" that results, Cronin astutely observes: "Getting closer to the customer is probably one of the most important benefits of using the network."
Manufacturing sector companies are not the only ones to benefit from closer customer contact. News providers are also reaching out for closer contact with customers. Cronin tells how The Boston Globe newspaper has started a regular column on electronic communications, and regularly includes the newspapers' Internet address to solicit reader feedback. Journalists can then get direct and immediate feedback to their stories. And the journalists themselves can use such feedback to become better informed about happenings in their local community.
Along similar lines, the Washington Post newspaper has initiated a regular column covering oddities on the Internet. This same newspaper has taken to including the Internet address of reporters at the end of articles. USA Today currently accepts letters to the editor via Internet electronic mail. (Internet address: email@example.com)
Cronin goes on to tell about a radio station in San Francisco, KKSF, that has set up a gopher on the Internet. Listeners of this station can access a playlist of songs on the gopher. Should these listeners get the urge to purchase any of the music being played, they can quickly and easily obtain information about the location of record stores that carry KKSF music.
Using the Internet to Promote Science and Research
In a chapter titled "Transforming Research and Development," Cronin explains the immense benefits offered by the Internert to scientists and researchers: "For the millions of researchers connected to the Internet, the communication power of the network has transformed the nature of their work." Naturally, the benefits that accrue to researchers often yield ancillary commercial benefits as well.
Two specific types of scientific collaboration on the Internet are examined in this chapter: improving medical diagnosis through computer imaging, and using the power of supercomputers to help locate untapped oil reserves.
The book discusses how the net helps doctors and researchers perform medical imaging from the data output of MR (magnetic resonance) and CT (computer tomography) scanners. Medical researchers can make use of remote supercomputer data crunching resources, saving the researchers the burden of having to purchase a dedicated supercomputer for their own use.
In a similar type of computer application, geologists and oceanographers are using the power of supercomputers on the Internet to help them locate possible undersea petroleum reserves. Gathering data about the possible location of such reserves is the easy part. Analyzing the data using computer models is the processor-intensive part.
Overseas Uses of the Internet
Few people realize the true international scope of the Internet. While it's true that the Internet had its origins here in the United States, today the net has extended its tentacles to just about every continent.
To help readers gain an appreciation of how the Internet is being used overseas, Cronin relates anecdotes of how businesses in Singapore are using the net:
"Singapore provides an interesting example of competing through connectivity - - - and the dynamic relationship between policy, commerce, and technology in the global village. Singapore promotes itself as the 'Intelligent Island,' and its National Computer Board has adopted a plan called IT2000 to transform Singapore into the information technology capital of Asia. Government agencies make every effort to smooth the way of multinational corporations wishing to use Singapore as a communication hub for the twenty-first century."
Empowering Individuals Within Companies
Connecting to the Internet can empower companies as a whole, as well as empowering individuals within companies. Cronin cites the example of Apple Computer's Steve Cisler, whose informative postings pop up regularly on many Internet discussion lists: "Steve Cisler, another active Internet participant, shares information on the Internet through detailed meeting reports and informative postings to discussion lists."
Cisler, a senior scientist at the Apple Library, Apple's corporate library, regularly summarizes meetings and happenings in the technology/information science field. He also makes it a practice to help disseminate information on the growing freenet movement taking place around the world.
For Cisler, his computer's keyboard serves as his printing press. The Internet serves as an accessible and cost-free tool for disseminating his writings instantly around the the world.
Interestingly enough, Cisler's Internet postings are often imbued with a public spirit. Apple Computer may pay his paycheck, but his public spirited postings could easily give someone the impression that he is working for the public at large.
Each of the book's nine chapters has about fifteen to twenty citations to further readings on related topics. Most references are to books and periodicals from 1991, 1992, and 1993. The quantity and quality of research that was done in assembling "Doing Business on the Internet" is indeed impressive. Citations are given to periodicals as diverse as the Internet Business Journal, Scientific American, Forbes, and Sloan Management Review - - - to name a few. Book citations range from better known books on telecommunications (i.e. Krol's "Whole Internet Guide & Catalog," and the like), to lesser known books on modern business practices. Along with all the standard and predictable references, Cronin includes references to annual reports from Motorola and Intel, information sources often overlooked by others.
Minor Quibbles and Nit-Picking
"Doing Business on the Internet" succeeds in many respects, but the book does gloss over a few topics that beg for greater coverage. For instance, what effect will the snowballing freenet movement have on company/customer relations? And if online communications with customers yields substantial benefits to companies, what actions are these companies taking to help train the general population in basic telecommunications skills?
To be sure, freenets are mentioned in passing once or twice in the book. But the subject could well merit an entire chapter in future editions of the book.
Another minor quibble with this book is that it leaves the reader wishing for more. The content is indeed gripping and well-presented - - - but you can help but wish for just a few more anecdotes, a few more case studies.
Cronin's book is as much about people as it is about technology. One of the recurring themes of the book is the slowness with which people come to understand the usefulness of new tools and technologies. Those who do comprehend the power of these tools have a one-up on their business competitors: "Companies already linked to the Internet receive the advantages of high-speed telecommunications and continuously evolving technology while learning invaluable lessons about the management of networked organizations.... We are just beginning to understand the impact of networked communications on our daily lives and way of doing business."
"Doing Business on the Internet" brings you the voices of many people who have evangelized the benefits of Internet connection within their companies. The book succeeds in the way that it lets you draw your own conclusions from these first hand sources.
It's an irony of modern life that it sometimes takes superhuman efforts to convince businesses to act in their own best interest. When it comes to convincing business managers about the benefits of connecting their employees to the Internet, this book is just the ticket.
[The author takes a keen interest in the social dimensions of online communications. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org]
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