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Perestroika

Perestroika

Revolutions are noisy affairs, generating their own heat and publicity.

Occasionally, though, it is the small incidents that herald the onset of great changes. We notice the waves, but not the ripples.

At some point in the last two years my company changed from being an outfit which printed magazines a couple of times a month into an organisation which delivers information dynamically, all the time. Trying to pin the precise moment this began, and to follow the train of consequences makes for an interesting case study in reform.

As best as I can discern, it started the day Philip Sim, now Australian Reseller News (ARN) editor, and myself accidentally wrecked our PCs. At the time we were both journalists on ComputerWorld and we were trying to install TCP/IP stacks to give us Internet access on the desktop.

For reasons not worth revisiting, our actions constituted a sackable offence.

After our screens went blank and our short careers flashed before our eyes, we decided our only recourse was to try and install Win 95 (an even more sackable offence at the time) and hope no one noticed. This was based on the old creed that it's better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

The plan half worked. The installation went fine and we were back on board within an hour, but unfortunately everybody recognised what we were doing and Win 95 started infecting PCs all over the company. The momentum became unstoppable and the IT bastille was rapidly breached and deconstructed. Within six months we had dumped our main IT supplier, hired an IS manager, created a CIO position and restructured the entire information set-up. (See my column, "Dirty Laundry" in CIO November 1997.) These days we have Internet access on every desktop. For us, the significance of Internet access isn't Web browsing, it's product development, brand extension and customer service. Each day we deliver between 3500 and 4000 products via e-mail. That number will at least triple by the end of the year based on current expectations. For us, e-mail has become more than a mission-critical application. It is part of the philosophical underpinning of the company -- it's what we do for a crust.

Zealots like me argue that the day will rapidly arrive when paper products such as CIO and ComputerWorld will become supplements to electronic, customer-centric information packages. ComputerWorld already operates three separate electronic daily services, each with a distinct content focus, and with a combined circulation of nearly 3000. These are delivered using e-mail, the Web, Lotus Notes, and via integration with corporate intranets.

Another one of our titles, Australian Reseller News, currently has about 15 per cent of its subscribers receiving daily news via an e-mail service. That's from a standing start of zero only three months ago. Within its customer universe, our vision is ARN on every desktop every day.

The Internet lets us create unique and customised news services for individual companies and user groups. Content is user driven, always available, completely tailorable and unfettered by the cost constraints and space limitations of paper. Information on demand, catering for market segments of one -- and it all took hold because some barbarians wrecked their PCs two years ago and had to cover their butts.

Challenges lie ahead but the biggest problems we face are managerial, not technological. We can't afford to get too far ahead of our customers in our product thinking and we have to accept significant cultural change internally.

Take our long-suffering journos for instance. Daily news discipline means that the era when they wrote seven stories on a Monday morning and spent the rest of the week at lunch has gone forever.

Times change, sorry lads.

Andrew Birmingham is the CIO of IDG Communications. He can be reached at Andrew_Birmingham@idg.com.au

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