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How leaders must change in the information age

By Harlan ClevelandHarlan 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. / February 16, 1982



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.''

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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.

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.