Information Today
Volume 18, Issue 10 — November 2001
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IT Report from the Field •
ASIDIC Fall 2001 Meeting
This event focused on the economic downturn and the ongoing search for the 'next big thing'
by Dick Kaser

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 executives flew.

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." 

Bittersweet Opportunities
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.

Persistent Worries
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?"

Recessionary Impacts
Many of the delegates also drew from their past experiences in seeing companies through recessionary times. They observed the following:

  • 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.
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. 

Dick Kaser is Information Today, Inc.'s vice president of content. His e-mail address is

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