Magazine article Online

Signs of Time

Magazine article Online

Signs of Time

Article excerpt

The most important thing to keep in mind is the duality implicit in electronically available information.

It is no secret that timely information is the lifeblood of business. Outdated information can have serious consequences for strategic planning, competitive intelligence, new product development, market research, new business creation, and business decision-making in general. What sometimes is a secret is the age of the information you're looking at.

With the Internet providing news as it happens, some might suppose that the timeliness factor has become academic. If it's online, it's timely by definition. Maybe, but don't be too quick to jump to conclusions. There are still enormous glitches when it comes to timeliness. Traditional databases and online hosts continue to have updating problems, even when they've put their information on the Internet. And Internet Web pages themselves are not necessarily paragons of timeliness.

AGING GRACEFULLY

The most important thing to keep in mind is the duality implicit in electronically available information. Is that pretentious enough? To simplify, here are the two questions you should ask yourself if timeliness is an issue with you.

* When was the information added/updated electronically?

* How old was the information when it was added/updated electronically?

If someone puts last year's financial data on a Web site or into a commercial database, the fact that the data was added to the site or database today is irrelevant. What matters is the age of the information you can access. Last year's financial data remains a year old even if it's newly online, and there is just no getting around that.

Business researchers access multiple types of information and the timeliness issues are slightly different. If it's corporate numeric data, it's important to know the time period covered and the reporting date. For some sources, this may differ depending upon the number in question. You may find the number of employees as of last year-end, but financial data for second quarter of the current year. If you are looking for news articles, it's the date of publication that should concern you. Even here questions arise. An article in a newsweekly, such as Business Week, won't reflect events that happened after the author wrote the story.

MARKING TIME

It's always pleasing to find a Web page that plainly tells you about its timeliness. I call this the Explicit Disclosure approach. "This page was last updated on..." Even if the date given isn't today or yesterday, even if the page hasn't been updated for 18 months, at least you know the truth about the age of the information you're viewing. A word of caution here-- just because the main page at a site says it was updated today doesn't mean that the entire Web site was updated. If you go deeper into the site, you will frequently find that some pages are much older than others.

This may or may not be a problem. If a company's financial information on its Web site is the latest quarter, it's insignificant that it hasn't updated the page showing its overall mission and general business framework or the one detailing its history. The latter two don't change minute to minute. Even pages that don't truly need to be updated frequently can, however, get stale. I was amused several months ago when I looked at the Proctor & Gamble site debunking the persistent rumors about the Satanic nature of the company (http://www.pg.com/rumors) to see that the many letters from reputable church leaders and media figures (the "Sally Jessy Raphael" show did not air a program on this topic) were all dated several years ago. I was even more amused when a Wall Street Journal story ("Still Bedeviled by Satan Rumors, P&G Battles Back on the Web," September 21, 1999) quoted from these letters, but did not comment on their age. Personally, I think a few newer letters would add credence to the site. …

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