|Could this be our finest hour? Amid rumors of war, grim economic news,and
signs of techno inertia, industry leaders met September 23-25 at the
ASIDIC (Association ofInformation and Dissemination Centers) Fall 2001
Meeting in Denver to consider the impact of recent events on information
producers and their customers.
A Tale of Two Headlines
They flew! The conference took place just 2 weeks after commercial
aircraft had been used as terrorist weapons. Still, they flew. The airports
were open again, following an unprecedented shutdown, but a skittish public
still resisted the air. A USA TODAY headline proclaimed, "Business
People Keep Their Feet on the Ground." And still, these information industry
For some, flying was both a political and a personal statement. Over
opening cocktails one delegate said: "I needed to get on that plane. I'm
glad I did it. It felt good." And after a pause, "It felt really good."
Just 2 weeks after the incident that shook the world, ASIDIC delegates
were already serious about fighting back. Each and every one of their businesses
had been negatively affected. Another headline told the tale. The front
page of Investor's Business Daily read, "Worst Week Since 1933."
But terrorist attacks and tumbling markets were just two of the concerns
that clasped the hands and furrowed the brows of ASIDIC participants. There
was a third issue on their minds: Where's the "next big thing"? What's
the technological breakthrough that will turn at least some of these problems
around? And worse yet, what if there is no such development on the horizon?
Shades of Churchill
At the famous Brown Palace Hotel, wherethe meeting convened, there's
a cigar bar called the Churchill. In the hotel's stately guestrooms, a
dresser-top card advertises the Churchill's exotic (and expensive) smokes.
The tooled green type on the small card says, "This could be your finest
hour." Whether the delegates visited the Churchill—or inhaled, if they
did—is not known. But the serendipitous (albeit ironic) point the little
card in their rooms was making seemed to strike home with them.
Various patriotic statements were made during the meeting. At the end
of the event, Bill Burger, vice president ofbusiness development at Annotate
Technologies, summed it up best when he said, "The spirit of entrepreneurialism
and invention remains, even in dark times." Which is not to imply that
in the coming months it will be easy for anyone.
Reacting to World Events
When Ray Lewis (INSPEC) and Kurt Keeley (American Water Works Association)
came up with the ASIDIC program, they could never have imagined the meeting's
backdrop. At the last minute, they arranged an impromptu working lunch
where delegates discussed how they and their customers might be affected
by the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
Kevin Bouley, Nerac, Inc.'s president, noted: "The terrorist attack
was a trigger for an already tottering economy. We need to watch our cash,
re-examine core competencies, and listen to our customers."
Playing lean. Getting back to basics. Refocusing on central strengths.
And keeping an eye on users' changing needs. These themes were echoed many
times during the meeting.
Ain't No Big Thing
Even before the events that rocked the world occurred, many at the
ASIDIC meeting had already been concerned about the economy. Some noted
they had been dealing with an economic downturn dating back to the fall
ofthe dot-coms over a year ago. Like many at technology-based companies,
they were hoping for a technological breakthrough that would give them
and their customers a much-needed second wind. This is what they had come
to Denver to discuss.
As billed, the 2-day program was aimed at identifying the next big thing
in technology--the big thing that by 2003 would stand out as a paradigm-shifting
concept. Perhaps, according to the speaker lineup, it would be the wireless
Internet or some other major departure in how people choose to access information.
As the sessions played out, various points of view were presented. But
by the end, delegates were concluding among themselves that no big thing
had been identified. In the final session, participants in the CEO Panel
brought the discussion full circle. Perhaps, they noted, producers shouldn't
be looking for anything other than the technology they've already got.
Why not make the most of that?
"Embrace and adapt the new and existing technologies," Outsell, Inc.
president Anthea Stratigos told the panel. "Integrate into desktop applications.
Exploit deep linking in full text. Turn content into solutions. Unbundle
tools and taxonomies—the skills that vendors have may be more valuable
than the content they sell. When in doubt, outsource. Be ready to take
advantage of the next big thing when it comes."
Not all information companies are the same. Neither are all their customers.
Some ASIDIC delegates observed that the information industry has always
been a niche business. In the months ahead, they predicted, some niches
will fare better than others.
Ironically and sadly, they observed, some will benefit inadvertently
from the U.S. response to the terrorist attacks. ASIDIC working groups
predicted increased levels of government funding for certain applications
and technologies related to data gathering and analysis (read, "intelligence").
"The broadband and fiber infrastructure has served us well in the last
weeks," said Andrew Elston of PRIMEDIA, Inc., reporting for his working
group. "The Web performed admirably. There may be a need now for more technology
to prevent hacking and cyberterrorism."
Some may also profit from the public's hesitancy to travel by providing
advanced distance learning, remote training, and teleconferencing services.
The demand for news will continue to be high.
On the downside, some delegates worried that government might tighten
the hold on and exert more control over information, and extend its direct
involvement in creating and distributing information services.
Participants also anticipated a growing conflict between matters of
privacy and interests in security, but some saw this as an opportunity,
too. "Private enterprises could provide checks and balances to make our
lives both safer and better," suggested Elston's group.
As dramatic as events in recent weeks have been, they have only temporarily
distracted the industry's attention from issues that existed before the
crisis. On the hot list of temporarily back-burnered concerns was last
summer's Tasini Supreme Court decision, which threatens the delivery
of certain e-texts. Will the ASCAP music model for paying royalties to recording
artists become the model for freelance writers, too? Will Napster's music-trading
business cross over and morph into a platform for sharing published works?
"Could this be the critical combination of events," asked Bouley, "that
will trigger Docster? Will a recession result in diminished sales for printed
subscription journals and shift usage to the preprint servers?"
Many of the delegates also drew from their past experiences in seeing
companies through recessionary times. They observed the following:
As the ASIDIC delegates packed up to leave the Brown Palace Hotel for the
airport, one thing was clear. If they had not reached consensus on the
next big thing, at least they had achieved catharsis.
In times of economic decline, niche markets become more important.
Library resource usage generally goes up in a recession.
Corporations tend to cut spending and retrench. In past downturns this
has tended to reduce the number of corporate libraries and information
staff. Will the same be true this time?
Finally, they affirmed, the U.S. economy has been shaken, only to be refueled.
"Yankee ingenuity will turn something bad into something good," said Elston.
Dick Kaser is Information Today, Inc.'s vice president of content.
His e-mail address is email@example.com.