Doing Business in an Age of Electronic Miracles and Wonder

Wriston, Walter B.


Technology on the Move


Although some would like to slow the pace of change, technology will not stand still. Perhaps Arthur Clarke said it best: "Anything that is theoretically possible will be achieved in practice, no matter what the technical difficulties, if it is desired greatly enough."

Fundamental changes in society always make political and business power structures uneasy. History teaches that these fears are well founded. The growing power of the merchant class helped break the power of the feudal system. The decline of the landed gentry's power in the face of industrialization is well documented. As economic dominance moved from one sector of the economy to another, political power tends to follow over time.

The power structure's first reaction to such shifts is to ignore or belittle them, then comes a grudging acceptance, and, eventually, a shift of political power, which is apparent to all. The advent of the information society is following this well-worn path, albeit with its own twists and turns.

This new economic age is being both driven and led by technology. It should come as no surprise that the massive changes produced by the use of technology are not always welcomed by corporate managers or political leaders.

Many business leaders feel an acute sense of unease around technology that they cannot fully understand. This is an understandable reaction, but sometimes they let that sentiment influence their judgment about what Information systems can do for their business.

Those managers should take heart from an experience of a programmer, Richard Block, who worked with the legendary Harvard Mark I computer during World War II. One day the distinguished Dr. Von Neumann, who is generally credited with the concept of stored-programs for computers, came to Cambridge on a government mission to calculate the effect an atom bomb might have on a given area.

The programmer asked Dr. Von Neumann if he would like to know how the Mark I computer worked. He was told, "No.' What Dr. Von Neumann wanted was the solution to his equations. Businessmen and women similarly want answers to their questions - the technology itself can be invisible and serve only to implement a business purpose.

Sometimes, however, information technology can have a profound effect on the nature of business itself. In order to capitalize on new business opportunities, it is important that senior management see information in a strategic context, something that may well determine the future of their corporation, rather than as an operating process to be contained within some technical department. The difference is vital.

  • This document was created from the article, "Doing Business in an Age of Electronic Miracles and Wonder," written by Walter B. Wriston for the June 22, 1987 edition of "American Banker." The original article is located in MS134.003.027.00002.
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