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Through the looking glass.

"It seems very pretty," she said when she had finished it, "but it's RATHER hard to understand!" (You see she didn't like to confess, even to herself that she couldn't make it out at all.) "Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas - only I don't exactly know what they are!"

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass.

When we think about information technology, so many of us are like Alice: awestruck and excited at the pace of progress and its vast promise, yet equally apprehensive and confused about its implications. Our anxiety is compounded because, as communicators, we will be called upon to help integrate new media into our organizations. For, at its heart, information technology is not about CD-ROM, virtual reality, fuzzy logic or the World Wide Web ... it is about communication.

Ask Michael Keefe, director of multimedia for ICE, (Integrated Communications & Entertainment, Inc.), a major player in the emerging high-tech communication market. Keefe feels communicators will need a much broader set of talents to succeed in the digital world. "We are entering a new Renaissance. You need not be an expert in everything, but those who succeed will have a firm grasp of how all the pieces come together."

The present picture

For the near future, technology will continue to focus on getting people the information they want, when they want it, and in widening the channels for interaction. We will see greater use of interactive voice response, electronic mail and interactive diskettes to carry, and receive, corporate messages.

CD-ROM will also increase in prominence. As our companies upgrade computers, many will come with CD-ROM drives, so we will be able to take better advantage of the technology. Keefe feels the transition into the corporate world has been slowed somewhat because business has approached CD-ROM the same way it would approach more traditional forms of communication. "Technologies are benign. It's the creative side that hasn't yet understood the potential, or limitations, of CD-ROM."

In the not-so-distant future, interactive TV, advanced wireless technology and a more mature Internet will broaden the borders of communication, so our audiences can easily access information wherever they are.

The next wave

For the next wave of communication, retrieving and interacting alone won't be enough. Virtual reality, still in relative infancy, will allow us to experience new knowledge. And while true artificial intelligence still falls in the realm of science fiction, we can expect our interactions with technology to develop an increasingly "personal" feel.

But how far ahead do we need to see, when many organizations still use computers that can handle little more than word processing? With the pace of new technology multiplying, those organizations who relegate technological progress to the "nice to have" list will quickly fall behind. To be fair, we need not race out tomorrow and buy two-way video phones and invest millions in multimedia powerhouses. Nonetheless, we must keep open minds to what is coming.

The Internet

Walk into the computer section of your bookstore and you will find a vast and ever-expanding library about the Internet. Many authors would have you believe that if you don't have a Web site, your organization will be extinct within the year. In many ways, this is the same paranoia that has businesses jumping onto every management fad bandwagon that pulls through town.

In present reality, however, there are two good reasons to set up shop on the Web: to have a good foundation in place as the Net expands, and to avoid being conspicuous by your absence. In time, the Internet will become a valuable tool for providing existing and potential employees and customers with information about your company, its products, its employment policies and its executives. With the Internet, you can update information quickly, without having to reprint brochures and other materials. The media and other interested parties can access details about your company 24 hours a day, from anywhere in the world.

Even if your company doesn't have a Web site, you and fellow communicators can gain a great deal from having Internet access. With electronic mail, newsgroups and even real-time "chats," you can share valuable ideas with colleagues in several discrete locations.

Howard Rheingold, author of "The Virtual Community" sums it up nicely: "Collective knowledge-gathering is possible because plugging desktop computers into telecommunications networks creates a new communication medium. Computer bulletin board systems and networks make it possible for people to connect with each other on the basis of shared interests."

Whatever your interest, the key consideration is this: Do not underestimate - or overestimate - the value of the Internet to your business.

Video teleconferencing

One of the great challenges organizations have faced for decades is finding a better way to collaborate across distances without grappling with the cost and wasted time of corporate travel. Enter videoconferencing, which brings video, real-time document editing and conversation simultaneously to several desks separated by continents.

Since the 1960s, service providers have tried to introduce video telephones, with minimal success. Now, however, with advances in computer processing speed and data compression, along with reductions in cost, teleconferencing at last may be coming of age. Hurdles are still there to overcome. Choppy video images, uneven synchronization of audio and video, and increased delays when data and documents are included, distract from the reality of the experience.

As the technical problems are solved, communicators will be able to take advantage of video teleconferencing's tremendous promise. It is the next generation of groupware, or systems, that allow people to work on documents simultaneously. Advances in this technology will become increasingly important as we see more shifts in work from the office to the home. Even the nature of employee communication may change, because a growing portion of our work force will comprise contract workers.

As Nicholas Negroponte, head of Massachuset Institute of Technology's Media Lab and author of the bestselling "Being Digital," explains, "The same technology that allows people to be at a distance will allow them to be more entrepreneurial in the digital world and perhaps work for themselves."

Within our traditional organizations, teleconferencing also will play a key role. For research, you will be able to interview a broader range of people without making compromises because a location is too remote. With the capability to examine and work with data simultaneously, you can collaborate with colleagues in other locations to develop and implement communication plans much more quickly.

Interactive television

Interactive television (ITV) is being widely heralded as the future of entertainment in the home. By accessing a box atop your TV set, you will be able to shop, select what and when you watch, and even adjust camera angles and select outcomes for your favourite shows. The technology has tremendous potential for business as well. Enrolling employees for their benefit programs, providing access to training materials and videos, and downloading payroll onto digital cash cards are just a few possibilities. Right now, start-up costs and the quality of the cables to carry the information have slowed ITV's emergence, but again, these are logistical factors that will be overcome.

Virtual reality

A virtual reality (VR) environment is a world of three-dimensional graphics and sound, manipulated by the movements of the participant. When this technology matures, participants will not only interact with information, but also will actually be immersed in it. Where video teleconferencing will let you see a video image of a colleague, VR will eventually allow you to enter a virtual meeting room with that person and together examine and discuss virtual objects.

"When the business world first embraces virtual reality, it will likely be for high-level management applications, such as searching databases," says Greg Panos, president of SophisTech Research, a publishing company that specializes in virtual reality. "It will be much more interesting to walk around, navigate through data and make decisions in real time."

Widespread use of virtual reality is likely a distant goal. At present, the hardware is prohibitively expensive. Quirks in the technology cause a sense of vertigo in some users. And virtual "reality" has not yet evolved to the point where it seems like the real thing. Panos says that one of the biggest obstacles to acceptance of VR for business interaction is that representations of humans are very poor.

Explains Panos: "Virtual reality has not yet been able to accurately render human appearance in three-dimensional form, or reflect an individual's personality. Before we can capture the emotional nuances or behavioural aspects of a real person, there will have to be a great deal of advancement in the area of artificial intelligence."

Technology aside, perhaps the biggest hurdle will be in convincing management to invest in what many will view as an adolescent's toy.

"Unlike most technology, which is driven by a business demand, virtual reality is growing out of the consumer environment," says ICE's Keefe. "Corporations will inherently view VR with a degree of skepticism."

A closing argument

The business case for increased use of information technology in organizations will be pushed by groups who will demand information in a highly interactive form. Think of our children: to many, multimedia technology is as familiar as books and other media. The growth of technology is like an enormous snowball barrelling down a mountain; it is unstoppable, and it keeps getting bigger.

With so many new tools entering the fray, one may well wonder if our efforts to learn about them will be for nought. After all, won't they all become obsolete? Keefe disagrees. "Almost all technology will find its niche and flourish, as long as the people who drive the technology are creative."

Brian Croft is a consultant with the Toronto office of Towers Perrin. He can be reached at
COPYRIGHT 1995 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:information technology
Author:Croft, Brian
Publication:Communication World
Date:Nov 1, 1995
Previous Article:Going inside with the Internet.
Next Article:Multimedia: finally - a practical communication tool.

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