Editor's Note: A March 7 Fortune magazine article entitled "The Internet and Your Business" discussed MecklerWeb, a commercial Internet service to be announced on June 1 at Internet World in San Jose. After quoting the system's creator, Christopher Locke, Fortune author Rick Tetzeli wrote: "That sort of attention to what businesses need is new to the Internet...." The following reflects some of Locke's seminal thinking about the need for a system like MecklerWeb.While much of Internet World is -- to no one's great surprise -- strongly positive about the Internet, we also need to apply critical intelligence to our assessments, and explore the net's pitfalls as well as its potential. After an infatuated honeymoon, the business press has begun, predictably, to look for negative angles on what it sees as "the Internet story." Surprisingly, one of the worst examples of this overt spin doctoring came from a source that has been outstanding in its other Internet coverage: The New York Times. On December 19, the Sunday magazine section ran a short piece titled simply "Internot," which concluded that the net was far less fun than a John Wayne movie because it forced users to read and type. Even leaving aside the real costs of illiteracy to society as a whole and companies in particular, this is a silly story on its face. Business has a crucially strategic need for the Internet, and certainly not for its entertainment value.
How could this be anything less than obvious to the Times? How could a paper justly noted for its excellent coverage of this subject offer us such a patently ridiculous analysis? In part anyway, I believe it's our own fault. In this first of many columns on commercial Internet issues, I want to offer a serious challenge to business readers. Let's begin with my headline, above.
I think few today would disagree that "knowledge exchange" is an intrinsic and critical aspect of business as we have come to understand it in the late 20th century. After all, we speak easily of "knowledge workers," "knowledge resources" and the "knowledge economy." Analysts such as Peter Drucker, Alvin Tofler and Robert Reich have been telling us for years about the central role of human understanding in the global economy which is now fully upon us. Companies need the knowledge of all their workers, not just the privileged insight of top management. They need to establish bi-directional paths to the knowledge of suppliers and strategic allies. Most of all, companies need first-hand knowledge about what customers and prospects want, and be able to turn these perceived needs into successful products and services.
Now suppose we subtly modify our headline, converting it to a proper noun phrase by adding the definite article: The Knowledge Exchange. This usage suggests an analogy to "the stock exchange." While the financial markets do have a strongly virtual quality today, representing globally distributed corporations, we still immediately think of NASDAQ and the New York and American stock exchanges -- or their equivalents from London to Hong Kong.
But where or what is "the knowledge exchange"? We form no immediate impressions on hearing such an expression, and most of us would likely ask for clarification: "Excuse me? To what, exactly, are you referring?" I want to suggest that this is a major -- perhaps the major -- problem for the Internet today. Business needs a knowledge exchange that is not an abstraction. Companies need to be able to get "listed on" such an exchange. But today, who can these companies turn to? Who can they call?
Sure there are lots of great books on the subject, and all manner of directories listing e-mail listerv addresses and newsgroups by the thousands. Internet World itself has played no small role in whetting the interest of thousands of businesses in the Internet. But then what? What can a company do, in practical terms, to get itself meaningfully "on" the Internet? And what does it do once there? Reading books and magazines may help, but companies with vision enough to understand the importance of what's taking place in this new market arena simply don't have the luxury of time being on their side. The global economy is here today; it's not waiting for us to adjust to it. In that light, how many companies can afford to acquire the corporate equivalent of a Ph.D. in Internet -- and how many would want one if they could? How can companies afford a multi-year learning curve to figure out the fact -- and it is a fact -- that the Internet constitutes the best solution to many of the thorniest problems posed by the internationalization of markets?
What's needed is a Knowledge Exchange with a phone number, a mailing address and an e-mail in-box. Companies need to be able to establish working relationships with this Exchange to begin planning their effective presence on the Internet. More concretely, they need to know precise costs and timelines for creating such a presence so they can adequately assess the advantages and risks, then rapidly decide how they will proceed. While thousands of companies are genuinely interested in how they can leverage the Internet in pursuit of critical business objectives, there is -- as yet -- no such Exchange they can turn to that has achieved two fundamental prerequisites: a) commercial credibility, and b) critical mass.
Credibility has to do with understanding not just the technical arcana surrounding the Internet, but critically, requires an intimate understanding of how corporations operate and what they hope to achieve. As with any emerging technology, there is currently a significant credibility gap between existing Internet technology companies and their prospective business clients.
Critical mass has to do with how such a knowledge exchange is actually implemented. What I am suggesting here is not simply a clearinghouse for information about commercial Internet presence, but rather a pragmatic avenue for actually achieving such presence in the near term. Companies that want to reach Internet markets need to be assured they are not going to end up in some cyberspatial backwater that attracts little or no customer traffic. Commercial real estate is cheap in unpopulated areas for good reason: other than the odd intrepid explorer, nobody goes there. Too many "commercial" Internet services suffer from the same effect. They may seem inexpensive, but they are costly as hell if the mission -- as usual in standard business practice -- is for revenues to exceed expenditures. Anything that fails this test is hardly a compelling "deal" for commercial organizations.
Think of critical mass in terms of a successful mall. Anchor stores create the foundation for dozens or hundreds of smaller businesses and boutiques to display and sell their wares. Location and cooperative market positioning bring customer traffic capable of supporting the entire operation. When such a mall is well designed and orchestrated from the start, everyone wins: the mall management, the store owners, the customers who get access to a wider array of products and services, the community in which it is situated. In this case, that community is the entire Internet, which to remain healthy and robust in the face of the exponential growth it is currently experiencing, needs the resources and financial energy that only full business involvement can supply at this juncture -- mistakenly counting on government largess would surely be fatal.
While no such scenario has yet evolved on the Internet, many readers will instantly recognize their own needs reflected in this necessarily sketchy proposal. If you are one of these, I invite you to call, fax, mail or e-mail me so we can explore this matter together.
When the need for a stock exchange was first perceived in the last century, it did not come about through government bodies or technical working groups drafting endless papers. Instead, companies that stood to benefit banded together and agreed to conduct their public transactions in a funky little part of New York called Wall Street. The need for a fully inter-networked commercial knowledge exchange is no less pressing today than were the needs of those companies over a century ago. Can we do it again? If you think so, as I do, let's talk -- and then take action on our own behalf.