Rediff Logo Infotech Banner Ads Find/Feedback/Site Index
October 20, 1997


N Vittal

Mr T S Eliot's digital wisdom

Where is the information we have lost in data?

This is the Age of Information. In today's economy information plays a crucial role. But then, you may ask, when has it not? Information exchange is the basis of any business transaction. Every business arises because there is a demand and somebody is able to meet it. The actual process of providing
Eliot's digital wisdom
ShellSock ban protest
CAD centre set up
Employee database
Calsoft-IMSI talks
goods and services begins with the availability of the information about the demand.

Then why is it that only now have we come to call our time the Age of Information? To answer the question, let us look at changes taking place in the way we add value to goods and services:

A kilo of steel is 90 per cent materials like iron, cobalt and manganese and 10 per cent steel technology. But all computer software and telecommunications systems is 90 per cent technology and 10 per cent material. And technology, after all, is nothing but congealed knowledge. And knowledge, in turn, is based on and expressed as information.

Data, information, knowledge and wisdom have become the key to value addition today.

Poet T S Eliot asked: 'Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?/Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?' I would like to ask 'Where is the information we have lost in data?'

Collecting good data is the first step in managing information. Correct conclusions can only be derived from accurate, reliable and empirical data. These conclusions make up information, the analysis of which will empower us with knowledge of the situation. And finally, it will be wisdom, resting on this knowledge, which will temper our actions.

For instance, in starting an automobiles business, the basic data may relate to demand, customer preferences, competitors' position, purchasing power of the people and a whole lot of facts and figures from the cost of production to the finances of the entire operation.

In short, you will have to begin with data. Then draw conclusions from it to create information on which business wisdom and knowledge, like technology can be applied. In the past, when the economy was not so very much dominated by technology, the role of information was probably less significant.

Futurologist Alvin Toffler has divided the growth of civilisation into three waves. The first is that of agriculture, the second is of industry and the third is the post-industrial wave. In the post-industrial wave, the intensity of knowledge and knowledge workers is very significant.

The role of managers today has a lot to do with the handling of information. Robert Rich, in his book The Work of Nations, has said that most of us in today's business organisations are 'symbol operators'!

We can therefore readily appreciate that the technology which has evolved specially to handle information becomes increasingly significant. It is obvious that if information is going to be the dominant factor in the economic life today information technology will be the most relevant technology.

Information technology is the synthesis of computers and communications. The questions we have to examine are: can managers be effective in terms of getting desired results? How can they use effectively the tool of information technology?

Thanks to information technology, the world has truly become a global village. This, in turn, has also led to an integration of global trade. Further developments like the collapse of the Soviet Union and the signing of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, leading to the setting up of the World Trade Organisation have created an environment where globalisation has become the significant fact of economic life.

By globalisation, I mean the free movement across borders of (i) physical capital in terms of plant and machinery, (ii) financial capital in terms of investment made in capital markets by the financial institutions, (iii) technology and (iv) labour.

Also, global competition means we must be able to compete on the basis of time as well as cost. Information technology is tailored for speed and analysis.

A manager needs to interact with the customer, know her needs, get feedback and must keep in touch.

In automobiles case this amounts to the talk of custom designing or 'mass customisation', a contradiction in terms. This is possible because of extensive application information technology in the manufacturing process. It is possible to have cost economics and still manufacture in small lots. Some automobile companies are talking of giving customers the choice of designing his own vehicle in terms of various options offered and then manufacture the product in time to meet the requirement.

In the Indian context, the basic reality is what Bajaj is doing by interacting with dealers over a computer network. This way a quick feedback about market conditions and customer requirements can be had.

In materials management, it is the use of information technology that has made the concept of Kanban, or just-in-time inventory operations, a reality.

Already, some companies in India are thinking on such lines. This will establish computer networks with suppliers so that zero-level inventory can be maintained. This has a direct bearing on the cost of production and hence competitiveness.

Yet another important aspect in manufacturing is achieving excellence and total quality control. Total quality management has become a buzzword. It is important to ensure that at every stage of the of manufacturing process quality is assured.

This can be made possible by using concepts like distributed digital control. In fact, there is a view that information technology has annihilated middle-level management. Thanks to computer networks and company intranet, it is possible for anybody to access databases and the middle-level manager may be considered redundant.

In End of Work, Jeramy Rifkin argues that information technology is responsible for the growth of jobless professionals in developed countries. The jobs are migrating to developing countries like India.

But such a view would be incorrect and myopic. Middle-level managers have a lot of information in their minds which is not reflected in the computer systems and this could be missed.

Ultimately, business involves a lot of human interaction and machines can never fully replace human beings. But IT can do a lot to enhance the effectiveness of the manager. For example, access to information about the customer needs or commitments or schedules to be meet can be an useful instrument.

In process-oriented organisations like the government, there is an increasing realisation that using computer systems could speed up matters. For instance, electronic data interchange, which allows computers to be used for transmitting of forms, is now being introduced in our customs departments so that the possessing time is brought down dramatically. In the Singapore port, for instance, the time taken for port procedures has been brought down from 3 days to 15 minutes. Email is another important element by which managers can be in touch with all concerned.

Even if you are operating globally, you can access information and communicate effectively so that the basic purpose of running a speedy effective organisation can be achieved.

Even though people talk about paperless organisations we have a long way to go do achieve that. But information technology can be of immense use, thanks to scanners and optical characters recognition systems. We can store in the computers important documents so that even if they are misplaced they will always available digitally. I find this is going to be of immense use, especially in government organisations where always we have the problem of locating key documents from a mass of files.

Information technology applications have their own unique problems when used in India. Compared to the rest of the world, our hardware presence and penetration is very low. When it comes to the Internet we are just above Mongolia and Vietnam in Asia with only 60,000 users in the whole country. When it comes to computers, we have only 1 PC for 1,000 people compared with the world average of 25 PCs for 1,000 people. We have only 1.2 telephones for 100 people as compared to 10 for every 100 worldwide.

The country has a long way to go but a company can introduce massive use of information technology in its operations.

One problem we are going to face in our country, especially in companies which have already got manual systems, is techno-phobia and the resistance in the transition from a paper-based system to a IT-based system. I am concerned with this exercise within the government.

A problem which would be faced by managers in improving their effectiveness by using IT is that of recruiting, retaining and restraining staff. As far as the software industry is concerned, the attrition rate is of 20 per cent. There is always a shortage of competent trained manpower.

Yet another information technology related development which should be useful is video conferencing. Fortunately, this is slowly being realised in our country. The cost and time required for travel is eliminated.

Fortunately, we have today in India, thanks to the national telecom policy and the economic liberalisation policy of the government, an environment by which we can hope to make quantum jumps in the overall availability of IT infrastructure.

With this development, therefore, it must be possible for the managers to effectively avail of IT to see that they and their organisations are successful in business.

Previous columns: Critical mass | T.R.a.I | Santa Clause 11(2) | The Broadcasting Bill | The death of distance | S.O.S, getting the message out of the bottle | Force 7 from FICCI | Of railroads and info highways | Techno Politics | Cheating death: Ways to resurrect ITI | The HAM-handed miracle | Electronic governance | Which came first? | The four-engine design | Learning to learn | Heads 'n hands | Post-mortem | Where's the cash

Tell us what you think of this column