How leaders must change in the information age

By , Harlan Cleveland, a former US assistant secretary of state, US Ambassador to NATO, and president of the University of Hawaii, is now director of the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

It was a big day. On Friday, Jan. 8, 1982, the explosive fusion of computers and telecommunications went critical. The United States Department of Justice, in two separate moves that cannot have been coincidence, unleashed those two great post-industrial lions, AT&T and IBM, to wrestle in a common arena, the ''information society.''

The revolutions started by Charles Babbage's ''analytical engine'' (less than 150 years ago) and Guglielmo Marconi's wireless telegraphy (not yet a century old) began on quite different tracks. But 25 years ago telecommunications and computers began to converge to produce a combined complexity, one interlocked industry that is transforming our personal lives, our national politics, and our international relations. Courts and antitrust lawyers and Congress naturally got left behind.

Now, in the spirit of the small boy who couldn't see the emperor's clothes, the Reagan administration has - by its actions, if not its words - declared the obvious: it's all one industry, the information industry; its parts might as well compete with each other, and devil take the hindmost. The devil may have slim pickings: both IBM and AT&T are already adapting with gusto to the newly permissive rules of the game.

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The industrial era was characterized by the influence of humankind over things, including ''Nature'' as well as the artifacts of man. The information era features a sudden increase in humanity's power to think, and therefore to organize.

But as information moves to center stage in the ''advanced'' economies, it is coming to be regarded as a resource in itself. This is new. Until less than a decade ago information (''knowledge,'' ''technology'') was seen to have a facilitative role. Beginning in the 1970s, the wiser futurists began to speak of information as the key resource of the post-industrial world.

Compared to ''natural resources'' - mineral, vegetable or animal - information is a mighty peculiar resource. So peculiar is it that leaders in an information society will have to develop very different ways of thinking from those that proved useful in the management of industrial and agricultural resources.

For example:

1. Information is nondepletive. It is not ''nonrenewable''; it is not even merely ''renewable,'' like biological resources, or ''recyclable,'' like waste paper and aluminum cans. Information is expandable: it grows as it is used, as John McHale said a decade ago (''The Changing Information Environment,'' 1972).

2. Information is consequently not scarce. On the contrary, as we all know from the condition of our desks, information is in chronic surplus. What is scarce is time - time to refine the relevant information from the overwhelming supply of low-grade ore, time to create usable knowledge by combination, calculation, editing, analysis, and integration.

The economic theory, legal concepts, business management, and political systems we have grown up with will require some fundamental rethinking to accommodate a ''resource'' that is neither depletive nor scarce. Economics as a science of the allocation of scarcities, legal systems for dispute settlement in conflicts about property rights, accounting practices in which ''depreciation'' plays a central role, a social politics preoccupied with the fair division of dwindling benefits - none of these furnishes an ''appropriate technology'' for formulating growth policy or managing social relations or moderating international conflict in the newly rich information environment.

''Rich'' does not equate to ''good.'' The ecologists have taught us that, in nature, too much is often as troublesome as too little; scarcity can be either drought or flood. What is true of the biosphere is at least as true of the man-made technosphere.

3. The information society is not resource hungry. Compared to the processes of the steel-and-automobile economy, the production and distribution of information are remarkably sparing in their requirements for energy and other physical and biological resources.

Every new breakthrough seems to decrease the resource-hungriness of post-industrial society. Investments, price policies, and power relationships which assume that ''advanced'' economics will gobble up disproportionate shares of ''real'' resources are overdue for wholesale revision.

4. Information gives rise not to exchange transactions but to sharing transactions. I give you a piece of coal or a motor vehicle or a weapon; you have it and I don't. I give you (or even ''sell'' you) a piece of information, and we both have it. Both of us can replicate it, manipulate it, and pass it along at will.

In a world full of nondepletive, overabundant, energy-sparing, shared resources, leadership and management are bound to have a different ''feel'' to them. Cooperation should work better than coercion.

Compared to things-as-resource, information-as-a-resource should encourage:

* The spreading of benefits rather than the concentration of wealth (information can more readily be equitably spread around the world than petroleum or gold or even water);

* The maximization of choice rather than the suppression of diversity (it is harder to regiment people who think for a living than miners or factory workers - and, as events in Poland suggest, informed miners and factory workers are likely to be ornery, too).

In a world with nobody in charge but everybody partly in charge, collegial not command structures are the natural basis for organization - as in Bell Labs or a good university. In such a management environment, ''planning'' cannot be done by a few leaders, advised in secret by experts with detailed blueprints. ''Planning'' has to be dynamic improvisation by the many on a general sense of direction which is announced by ''leaders'' only after genuine consultation with those who will have to improvise on it.

And more participatory decisionmaking implies a need for much feedback information, widely available - as in biological processes. That means more openness, less secrecy - not as an ideological preference but as a technological imperative. Maybe that's the updated definition of democracy.

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