Rumble, Rumble

Article excerpt

WHEN THE INFRASTRUCTURE RUMBLES, EVERYTHING CHANGES. HOW WILL THE NEXT PHASE OF THE INFORMATION ERA CHANGE ORGANIZATIONS AND AFFECT YOUR WORK? THE AUTHOR PROPOSES SOME POSSIBILITIES.

Infrastructures in any economy are the elementary networks that are put in first, and upon which all subsequent economic activity depends. Real estate developers, for example, first put in the infrastructure of roads, dams, sewers, electricity, and the like, so that communities of homes and businesses can follow. Each economy in history has relied heavily on a particular kind of infrastructure, one that is peculiar to the technology of its era. The railroads, for example, were crucial for the economic development of America in the nineteenth century. The railroad tracks and trains were the infrastructure upon which regional economies grew into a single national economy. Similarly, the automobile prompted the building of the U.S. interstate highway network in the 1950s, the infrastructure for the next 20 years of American economic growth.

New infrastructures mean economic transformation and growth. Today, computers, linked by telecommunications, are creating just such a new infrastructure that will transform our economy and our business organizations again. Within one or two decades, each of us could possess the full power of the worldwide information grid for doing our work. How is that likely to change things?

The effects of a new infrastructure take a while to develop. The succession is from new science, to new technologies, to new businesses, and only finely, to new organizations. The industrial economy lasted about 190 years (the 1760s to the 1950s) globally and 90 years in the United States. The most widely used model (Alfred Sloan's) for managing and organizing an industrial-age company didn't come along until the twilight of the era.

We are four-plus decades into the information economy with only three decades to go till we are in the next, the bio-economy. While we know that new models for organizing business are necessary, we haven't developed them yet, even though the information economy is maturing. We're still operating mainly with models that came to be during a past era.

Allowing for future shock and the quickened pace of change, the information economy will go through its entire life cycle in less time than the industrial economy. The information era is currently in early middle age and it will come into its own, with its own appropriate economic and organizational models, as it reaches late middle age. There is some logic to suggest that 2010, plus or minus a decade, will mark the three-quarter point for the information economy. (See the timeline on page 23.)

The infrastructure of previous eras had early and late phases. The early infrastructure of the industrial economy in the U.S. was the network of rail lines that developed following the invention of the steam engine and the railroads. The late infrastructure of the industrial economy was the interstate highway system built after the widespread use of cars.

We are a little more than halfway through the information era and the infrastructure is starting to rumble in preparation for a shift. The early infrastructure of the information era grew from the computer as a cruncher of massive amounts of data. The late infrastructure, just getting underway, is about computers as connectors. …