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Perspectives on the Digital Age

Terry Paulson, PhD, CSP, CPAE

"This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us." An 1876 Western Union Internal Memo

"America has run the world for at least the past 50 years, and when you're at the top that long, you forget what it's like in the valley. There are 5 billion people out there now who are willing to study harder, work harder for less money and be more industrious than we are. And we're linked to them by technology. With telecommuting, you can have your bookkeeping done in Madras, India, for less than it costs here. Today technology can replace whole new industries, so you have to stay flexible. To survive today, you have to be able to walk on quicksand and dance with electrons." Frank Ogden

You don't need any quote to tell you that things keep changing and that America is in a new kind of war. With restructuring, mergers, dislocations, deregulation, downsizing, and governmental changes, American organizations and the men and women who make them work are on the edge between surviving or thriving. The rules of the game in America have changed. American leaders and workers need retooling and a relevant and dynamic refocusing to prepare to lead a battle of a new kind. Young and old alike must find new ways to add value or get prepared to become victims of change. The safe harbor has given way to the turbulence of the open sea of rapid, constant change.

Everyone seems in search of the future on the information highway. Personal computers, CD's, videoconferencing equipment, the online world, satellite and cable transmissions--all are opening new ways to add value. What will the Digital Information Age mean to our society in the new millennium? How will it make a difference for education, the meetings industry, and training? What will distance learning mean to our global village? 

Terry Paulson
Terry Paulson
Are the proposed changes merely a mirage or will they add value to those riding and constructing the highways and destinations to visit? These are all valid questions for leaders, vendors, communications managers, professional speakers, trainers and educators to ponder. Realizing that there are no sure roadmaps to guide us and all the crystal balls are covered with finger prints, consider some of these perspectives on the Digital Age.

"The illiterate of the future are not those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn." Alvin Toffler

"If you already are in the `obsolete' category, surprise your manager by developing your own recovery program before he or she is forced to do it under much less favorable conditions." Dave Bowman 

The education function of corporations and associations will increase in the future. In a world of constant changes, there will be an unprecedented need for targeted, competency-based training that will enhance the competitive value of every professional. It is no longer just our youth that need education.

The age of lifelong employment and secure professions is over. Most are painfully aware that this is not a time for anyone to be good at something no one needs. Training and communication systems supported by educational institutions, associations, governmental agencies, and corporations will be needed more than ever to help every citizen meet the challenge of lifelong learning. Our processes, whether delivered in person or across the information highway, will either help people move from obsolescence to relevance or they will cease to exist. 

As a result of these needs, this is a time of great opportunity for educational institutions and associations. Unfortunately, educators and the institutions that use them may not be ready to meet the training needs in a way that the people they serve want to learn. As J. Paul Getty warned ages ago, "In times of rapid change, experience may be your own worst enemy."  Yes, we love to help and motivate others to change and to take advantage of learning, but we also seem reluctant to look in the mirror at the changes we ourselves may have to make. Things are moving so fast that no one is able to predict the future, much less keep up with it. As a result, be proactive and become very involved in trying to invent it. And don't forget to add your own training needs into your calendar; schedule 5% of your time in learning. 

"There's no going back. The genie's out of the bottle. The Internet doesn't have an off switch." Frezza, DigitaLiberty

The role leaders and the communications industry play in creating a positive vision of the future must increase. As John Gardner has said, "The first and last task of a leader is to keep hope alive." Sustaining a positive vision in the hearts and minds of workers requires leaders and professional teams that know how to make communication work. The answer lies in creating tension not in creating just more information. We must work to create interest, problems and payoffs instead of boring and predictable messages.   Those that are successful in doing this won't rely on any one approach. They will use any window to experience that will enhance their flexible but strategic imperative‹make education work for all they serve.

"I do not seek applause nor to amuse the people. I want to convince them. I often avoid a long and useless discussion by others or a laborious explanation on my own part by using a short story that illustrates my point of view." Abraham Lincoln

"We need myths to get by. We need story; otherwise the tremendous randomness of experience overwhelms us. Story is what penetrates." Robert Coover

"Stories...help individuals think about and feel who they are, where they come from, and where they are headed. It constitutes the single most powerful weapon in the leader's...arsenal." Howard Gardner

In this high-tech world, people want more than information. They want to connect to their softer, human side. Use stories and humor to get your message to penetrate. Humor creates the grabber, the memory hook, the energy, and the stress reliever that your people crave. Good stories unlock those seldom used doors and lead the listener or reader through their own house of memories. Those memories are a rich reservoir of enthusiasm and feelings. Good stories touch your audience where they live and provide images for retention. Such core-to-core contact touches people through their windows of experience to see themselves, their lives, and their memories in a fresh way. Take time to share positive gossip about the teams and individuals who are making change work. Capture hope where you find it, fan the sparks, and reflect the hope to the others who do not yet believe that change can work!

"There are two ways of spreading light: To be the candle, or the mirror that reflects it." Edith Wharton

"All too often, minority kids never hear about anyone other than athletes. They don't know the living you can make with your mind. When I hear the same thing in black schools as white, kids talking about becoming doctors and lawyers, I know the ghetto will disappear." Rosey Grier

"An American Management Association study found a high correlation between companies that expand training following work force cuts and those that showed a payoff in profit or productivity. The AMA found that 68% of those that increased training budgets at the time of cuts reported a jump in profits while only 42% of those who did not increase training reported a profit increase. As for increases in productivity, 44% of those who increased training budgets reported an increase compared to only 29% of those that did not increase training. After a year, the AMA numbers were even more convincing. Those who increased training budgets reported that 80% had a jump in profits  and 70% reported increased productivity. The numbers were 46% and 41%, respectively, for those that kept training budgets the same."   Training, February 1996

One prediction is easy to make; the "information highways" of the future will create new ways of providing education. The giants in communication, computers, satellite, and cable are racing to become the source of the digitized highway that will bring hundreds of new services to consumers, businesses, and associations. Which technology becomes the standard is not as important as finding out what people will be willing to pay for once the standard exists.

The fact remains, distance learning will compete for some of the same dollars that the meetings and education industries compete for. Technological advances will allow people to experience just-in-time learning. In meetings and in school, we have been content with using the synchronous model in which the presenter and the audience or class come together at a specific time and place. But we live in a hectic asynchronous world and online and distance learning options will allow people to learn anything, anytime, anywhere. Such options are the logical extension of the faxes and answering machines.

Both meetings and distance learning options have their place and should flourish, but once members are used to being connected and become more technologically literate, they will expect more from the information highway than text files and static images. They will want training tidbits targeted to their needs and presented in an entertaining and effective manner. Is the demand there now from those you serve? Wrong question. Are you ready with the information needed in a digital format that can ride any highway when your customers demand it? You better be. As Andy Grove, the Intel CEO, has popularized in the title of his new book, Only The Paranoid Survive!

"Consider Project Jupiter as `virtual social reality'--a collection of audio, video, and communications technologies to help communities form and flourish. Jupiter's real value is that it supports interactions that are richer and more focused than free-form electronic discussion groups, bulletin boards--even the Web. It allows for flexible participation; users can be more or less engaged as they see fit. It provides context as well as content: different programmable `rooms' and `objects' evoke different behaviors. In short, it is a network place, rather than an electronic space, where people interact as a community." John Seely Brown & Estee Solomon Gray

Help organizations digitally record programs to be ready for whatever information highway that wins. Meeting planners and even educators need to engage, educate, and entertain members to get them to attend meetings. Those same qualities will be important in generating pay-for-view products and distance learning programming for anyone who educates. When members come to a meeting or a class, they are captive audiences that have already paid. When members use their remote control or mouse to surf the world of online choices, they will not be so easy to please.

What will sell will be edutainment, programs that captivate with good content and effective delivery. In the Information Age, boring programs will not be tolerated. On the positive side, distance and online learning will allow groups to capitalize on a particularly gifted educators with state-of-the-art multimedia backup in reaching almost unlimited numbers of people around the world. The best programs and educators will be recorded in digital formats so that programs will be ready for any product format or information highway that is selected.

"One day, Forbes will be able to simultaneously publish the magazine in 50 different languages simply by pushing the button on a computer." Gordon Moore, founder of Intel. (stated in 1959)

Progressive speakers and trainers will partner with suppliers and organizations to create easy-to-change programs that fit Training-on-Demand products. There will be high-tech kiosks and internet web sites that will allow people to create their own customized CD-ROM products. They will be able to pick what modules they want included. Support handouts, relevant resources, and live-action video segments will be included with simple to use interactive search capabilities.

We won't just have CD's on demand; we'll have books on demand. Xerox foresees virtual bookstores using high-speed printers that bind while they print. They are now exploring ways to produce glued-together "perfect" bindings like those on paperback and hardcover books. As a result, people will be able to put together books that are targeted to their needs. Instant editing and cooperative marketing will allow both trainers and their partners to generate additional revenue. When magic happens in training, both educators and the organizations that are sponsoring their work will be ready and willing to take advantage of packaging a programs for sale.

When organizations ask, "Can we tape your program?" The answer will be, "Certainly, but I expect a share of the revenue generated by sharing the electronic rights." Expect strategic partnerships and on-line library of training modules marketed by all involved and charged in whatever way accessed. You will get used to seeing a web site for a National Training Database with search capabilities that will put present search engines to shame. Products generated will be priced low enough to attract sales volume that will benefit all involved. Partnering to add value will be the name of the game in the next century.

"The real stars of the medium will function more like bartenders than journalists. They'll pour you a drink, say, `How about those Yankees?' and walk away. The concept used to be that content is king. The thinking now is that community is king." Ted Leonsis, AOL President

"The digital economy will change...leadership. The traditional `boss' will fade away and be replaced by collective, or networked leadership. Hierarchies will be replaced by empowered team structures. At Alliance for Converging Technologies, all key decisions are made by collective leadership of key stakeholders. To do this, we use computers and the Internet to communicate with one another. The idea of collective leadership is hard for entrepreneurs to understand. It's hard for them to let go." Don Tapscott, chairman of Alliance for Converging Technologies and author of The Digital Economy, McGraw-Hill, 1996

"Hiring people who know everything about information technology is out of the question. In the old economy, life was divided into two stages: a period of learning and a period of working. In the new economy, working and learning must become one and the same. For small companies that lack the training resources of larger companies, the only way to ensure that employees continue to learn is to take advantage of new ways of learning: interactive media, free internet discussion groups, Net-based research, and so on. Some CEO's get this and others don't. Those that don't are falling off the face of the earth." Don Tapscott, chairman of Alliance for Converging Technologies and author of The Digital Economy, McGraw-Hill, 1996

E-mail and Internet sites will become the cheapest, easiest, and most efficient way to connect people and encourage communication and a sense of community. Right now, well over half the calls going from the US to Europe are not voice; they are fax transmissions. Online or wireless networks will allow us to maintain far-flung virtual communities of like-minded people at a fraction of the price. Common interests will be more important than geography.

The online giants have almost always been surprised that people mostly use the online networks to talk to one another, not to receive information that is broadcast to them. It's a lesson that needs underlining for those who fear that the Information Age will produce hordes of bug-eyed, mega couch potatoes unable to move much less go to a meeting or attend a class.

We're still only human; even if we are equipped with modems, we like to reach out and touch people, not just old information or training. Such online connections will prove to be lively places that occasionally roar with the noise of democracy and the emotion of empowerment. Asynchronous e-mail and message-board communication that allows people to send and respond to messages at their convenience are the biggest plus in getting value from the existing information highway. The quality of decisions is greater online. The speed is better, and electronic mail levels the influence field where status, gender and race mean far less than the value of your ideas. Organizations and leaders who understand the leverage a connected people can have, will work well in moving their teams forward faster.

"The fact that there's a public library shouldn't make you feel guilty about not reading everything that's in it." Thomas W. Malone, MIT's Sloan School

"Creators of the information can raise and lower the price at any time according to the degree of positive and negative consumer feedback, or this can be done automatically by the computer. Products will be able to find their own true economic value." Murray Turoff

Video programming from conferences will be made available online or via satellite delivery systems on a pay-per-view basis. CD's will form the interim impulse buy vehicle for making interactive information available, but the future belongs to open systems that can make quality, targeted information available anywhere, anytime, anyplace. Billing for information and presentations may be done by credit card, CyberCash or whatever emerges as a reliable form of credit. The future is here. Advanced networks allow students to attend college and participate in association certification programs in remote areas. Soon people will be able to attend college classes by wire and will matriculate from the Big Ten, mixing and matching video classes from any of the member universities. The vaunted Internet is an enormous library with no central card catalog or helpful librarian to guide the way.

Communication managers in the future may very well be looking for electronic librarians to help their people find the information they need. Information brokering is the key growth area. Getting people to what is worth knowing is critical when information now doubles every 17 months. It should double every 11 months by the millennium. It's been said that to the average person, information overload is like trying to sip water through a fire hydrant.

Now, most neophytes get lost looking around, and then leave. Let's face it, the super highway is less a road and more an organism that is hard to really control much less map. Right now getting the right information costs too much and takes too much time to find. Once communication systems are developed, suppliers will be able to send video or still images from your organization to any other location. It will most certainly open the floodgates to a wave of new quality programs or create a deluge of truly awful programs passing as training and communication. Fancy marketing will mean little in a world where your remote control and computer mouse can turn off anything that doesn't deliver what it promises.

"There's going to be some killer application that will let people do what they can't do now...if something is popular, it can hit 100,000 people in an hour." Robert Main, Electric Press Inc.

"A database, no matter how copious, is not information. It is information's ore. For raw material to become information, it must be organized for a task, focused toward specific performance, and applied to a decision. Raw material cannot do that itself. The organization..has to become information literate. It...needs to learn to ask, What information do we need in this company? When do we need it? In what form? And where do we get it?" Peter Drucker

Using a remote control, individuals will be asked, "What do you want to see?" When you choose change or leadership, an animated figure might ask, "Something new, or something from our classic archives?" The system will guide the viewer in search of presentations they want to watch. Armchair shoppers will be able to browse with their remote control, see previews of programs and product displays that interest them, and charge items or programs on their credit cards with the press of a button. Such a convenience will empower some folks and surely bankrupt others. Even with the V-Chip on the horizon, right now, sex is selling big time.

The anonymity of the Internet makes users less embarrassed. The two most common search queries to the Open Market's Index are "Microsoft" and "Sex". Will edutainment be the next application people will be eager to buy? Only if we work together to create programs worth watching.

"One technologic advantage for meeting planners is receiving registrations and requests for information electronically. It seems so obvious, but not having to re-key information will save enormous amounts of time. Also, by giving access to information about our program on the Internet, we are reaching audiences we simply would have missed before, especially interested parties in other countries where it might be cost-prohibitive to mail such information. Another area is what we are calling `Pre-mail'--we publish our e-mail address for feedback before the meeting so we can customize the conference for our audience. Basically, though, it is simply the ability to communicate easier and faster that I see as the great advantage to technology in our business." Jeff Rasco, CMP

Distance learning, videoconferencing, and pay-for-view programming will increase the demand for live programs and meetings. In the high-tech, high-touch world of the future, meeting face-to-face will remain important. Control strategies will give way to influence skills and the power of networking in making things happen. The information highway will provide more than programs and products; it will let people select live programming on the screen or at an event.

By clicking a button on a remote control, a viewer would be able to bring up a menu of presentation options. Click on one, and the image of the speaker on the screen shrinks to make room for the speakers background, her products, and her available programs on screen. Click again, and the viewer sees the speaker's public seminars and open educational presentations scheduled by date and location. Click again, and a diagram of an auditorium pops up, showing available seats and pricing. Click one more time, and she will have ordered a pair of prime seats in the front row at a presentation and reduced their bank balance by about $150.

Even with television and movies, the touch and feel of a live presentation on Broadway keeps bringing them in at high ticket prices. Additional online or distance visibility may even make great trainers and speakers more popular and more marketable at your meetings. When programs are good, people will want to play and replay that program. They will also be interesting in getting them back for an encore.

"To handle the pace of change, ask yourself one question: What technology will help me perform my responsibilities more effectively. Master that one tool and don't worry about the rest, or you will get an ulcer." Doug Fox

Not everyone will be connected to the information highway. Unfortunately, the information highway mania is still leaving most in the parking lot. In fact, many in business are finding that new technologies can be a big productivity reducer if its use is not focused. There are marvelous things a VCR can do, but most people can't figure out how to get the unit to stop blinking twelve!

Human beings still have a stubborn habit of not doing things the futurists and technologists predict they will. The real revenue and the best benefits from the information highway will show up well into the next millennium when its services mature. During the gold rush, it is not the average prospector that gets rich. It's the people that help them get to the best locations for the best training available that are positioned for the future. Stay open, keep learning and enjoy the journey. You don't need to invest the farm to add value. Keep your eyes on the horizon, network electronically, develop interactive communities that people enjoy attending. While you are at it, develop a library of digitized programs and resources to allow storage and retrieval when we find which information highway to ride.

"Americans seem to have a fear that some new medium will come along and wipeout their old comfortable ones. I still listen to opera. Radio is alive and well and living in my car at 7 in the morning. The point is that something new will only eradicate something old if the old thing no longer works. Opera still works. Horses don't." Scott Ross

Thoreau once said, "We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine to Texas, it may be, having nothing important to communicate."

Together we do have something worth communicating, and it's about time we all work together to give the future a chance to enfold. Keep experimenting with what technology has to offer. Keep sharing what you find that works with your colleagues. Let's keep pushing our professionalism toward embracing change and the opportunities communication technology will allow. The past has a vote and will always have value, but it can't have a veto on where the future is going. Don't wait for others to act. Get onto the onramp, move into the fast lane, and head for the excitement of the wild ride that awaits us all. See you on the highway. Let's make a difference together.

"Even if you're on the right track you'll get run over if you just sit there." Will Rogers
 


Dr. Terry Paulson's presentations help organizations, leaders, and teams make change work!
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