column for April 1994 issue of Internet World.

Stalking the Global Internet

By Christopher Locke

News of the Net is pretty hard to miss these days and corporations are beginning to pick up their ears. However, of the companies I talk with all the time, nearly every one strikes up the conversation with one little question: what's in it for us? The opportunities, I tell them, are in fact abundant, but knowing what to look for is more than half the challenge.

Many more years ago than I like to think, I took my kids mushroom hunting in upstate New York. The season was right, conditions were perfect, and I knew these woods were home to species that cost a fortune in the gourmet shops. We trudged up an entire mountain, casting about like bird dogs for any sign of new growth. And found nothing. How very strange. I started goofing around with the kids and soon forgot all about what we'd come for. On the way back down -- retracing the same path on which we'd encountered not a single mushroom -- we nearly tripped over hundreds of the things.

This experience has stuck with me because it's such a perfect example of what happens when attention is too focused and expectations run too high: literal blindness to the world as it actually is. That's often the case with the Internet today. There are opportunities all over the place, but to perceive them for what they are, companies need to loosen up a bit, recalibrate their attention and learn to see with new eyes.

Contrary to much of what you may have heard, the Internet is not some unique and isolated phenomenon. Instead, it is entirely typical of a new order of things which has already reshaped geopolitical boundaries and economic spheres of influence worldwide. Once-monolithic states have become Balkanized overnight into rag-tag collections of local tribes. Similarly, long-standing market hegemonies have fractionated into a spectrum of niches that smaller companies can often serve far better than multinational giants. In short, people the world over have realized -- as if all at once -- that they have the power to demand a broader array of choices about how they will live, whom they will support, and where they'll get the intelligence reports to inform their decisions in such matters. In the last case, don't bet on CNN.

Whether or not your company ever uses the Internet, it will have to deal with the new realities the Net represents. One of those is the critical need for dependable knowledge. Companies seeking to remain competitive in international markets must constantly reengineer themselves in the pursuit of innovation. And to do this, everyone needs to be in the loop. Gone are the days when Big Thinkers in Corporate HQ could come up with the killer new ideas. Today, companies like GE, Motorola and many others like them are breaking their necks to elicit input from the shop floor, the sales force, the supplier community, and the man and woman in the street. To create viable new products and services, these companies know they need to know more than they currently do.

Enter the Internet. Why is it such a perfect fit with these new requirements? Because it arises from the same constellation of desires that are reinventing our social universe: for a wider range of options, a deepened understanding of how the world works and far greater participation in making it work better. And don't be fooled: these these longings do not represent simplistic pie-in-the-sky idealism. Personal livelihoods are on the line. Enormous new markets are up for grabs. Entire national futures are at stake.

The Net fits into this radically evolving scenario in two fundamental ways. First, it enables companies to strengthen their own knowledge bases by incorporating insight from widely varying perspectives, and coordinating how that insight can be crafted into viable business strategies. The Internet spans not only the old bureaucratic boundaries that have -- at enormous cost -- isolated workgroups, departments and divisions, it also bridges the gulf between industry players, allowing companies to learn from both the hard-won insights and most humbling mistakes of their worst competitors.

Second, the Net enables companies to pay attention to their markets at a level of detail never before possible. Are people bitching about your product or your service? Better lend an ear. These folks are no longer dialing up your 800 complaint line to get put on hold. Instead, more than you might guess are electronically posting their experiences to thousands of others all over the planet. Are they saying your competition is dropping the ball? Opportunity is knocking loudly in these sometimes off-hand statements. If you're tuned in to such conversations, you may be able to do it better -- and substantially ramp your revenues in the process. Even just responding with intelligent suggestions can be worth more in positioning than you could hope to buy with multi-million dollar ad campaigns.

Companies face two major challenges in the new economy: to leverage the intellectual strengths of their own people and to read the collective minds of fast-emerging new markets. In both cases, listening and learning are absolutely critical, and there is no better "place" to practice those virtues today than on the global Internet. So forget about what you think you know and just plug in. There's a lot more at stake than a basket of wild mushrooms.