Info-Highway to Nowhere

A STUNNING irony underlies the current push to create a National Information Superhighway: The United States government is preparing to spend a minimum of $400 million to get the proposed information conduit up and running over the next several years - but is ignoring the dwindling supply of information professionals trained in ``data acquisition'' that the National Information Superhighway will require to operate.

The US government has to foster the growth of ``information managers,'' or we will have built a road at the same time we have closed some of the most important on-ramps.

That is because corporations and others are closing their business and technical information centers at a furious pace. Since 1990, hundreds of prestigious information centers, such as those at the Bank of America, Liberty Mutual Insurance, Department of Defense bases, Department of Interior, Houghton Mifflin, Digital Equipment Corporation, and the Engineering Societies Library have closed or been drastically curtailed. Many of these units were in operation 30 years or more.

Furthermore, fewer experts are around who have the necessary experience and credentials. The number of Masters of Library and Information Science Degrees conferred in the last decade has decreased 50 percent. These graduates will be many of those with the skill and know-how needed to navigate 150,000 on-line sources of information and 200 million on-line records.

Yet we see self-congratulatory rhetoric that ``information'' is America's competitive edge and that the federal government will foster the growth of these information conduits or networks.

Do public officials really believe that harried executives will find the time or acquire the expertise to use a GOPHER program? Or patiently investigate the data bank categories of Dialog? Much less quarry the card catalogue of the Library of Congress.

The answer to this vacuum of expertise lies in a two-pronged solution. First, in tandem with the kind of government support and subsidy that is impelling creation of the information superhighway, there has to be support for the training and employment of experts in ``data acquisition'' - the intelligent identification, sifting, collating and interpreting of the oceans of data ready to course through this information superhighway.

Second, the government should encourage a recently introduced entity in the private sector: professional ``informators'' at commercial information agencies - small, technology-rich, information-skilled entrepreneurial companies that have carved a niche by supplying ``briefings'' on demand on an overnight basis to the nation's decisionmakers.

SUCH widely respected companies as ITT/Sheraton, McCann-Erickson, Phillips Petroleum, FMC Corp., Smith Barney Shearson, Maxwell Laboratories, and McGraw-Hill have tentatively begun using the ``informator'' alternative and are achieving results.

They need to be encouraged to continue using this commercial information agency option; both to spur the growth of these important new riders on the nascent information highway and because their use maximizes management time and resources that are often frittered away on dead-end research.

Simply giving desktop access to information resources to untrained, overburdened, or unmotivated executives only adds to the ``hidden costs'' of corporate downsizing. Corporate executives now face a ``make or buy'' decision: If they are to maintain the competitive advantages of our ``information society'' they must choose to maintain either the in-house information center or the services of ``informators'' at commercial information agencies, or both. The federal government should encourage any of these options.

If our elected leaders allow the current decline to accelerate, we may find we have built a National Information Superhighway to nowhere. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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