26 Jun 2000  Research & Ideas

A New Ecosystem for Business and Society

In their opening comments at the IS2K conference, Harvard University President Neil L. Rudenstine and Harvard Business School Dean Kim B. Clark called forth, respectively, the spirits of the industrial past and the high-tech future to remind the audience that technology has always affected people's lives in diverse and frequently unexpected ways.

Describing, for example, the dramatic evolution that took place in colleges and universities a century ago with the advent of research libraries and scientific laboratories, Rudenstine noted that such transformations, radical at the time, invited decidedly mixed reviews. In those days, he said, people were warned of "the immense dangers of prolonged silent reading. Most of all, it was feared that excessive reading would make people socially disfunctional…and could well lead to a society composed mainly of certified misfits.

photo of Neil L. Rudenstine
Neil L. Rudenstine

"As we think about the last century in relation to our own," he added, "we can be certain that there will be some adverse changes. But we can at least take some heart from the fact that other eras have confronted similar problems and yet, apparently it seems, we have all survived."

Dean Clark continued this theme by discussing issues that businesses, society and higher education need to recognize and confront. For business, he said, the Internet has brought about the creation of "an entirely new ecosystem."

In the traditional view of a company, the dominant form of organization has been of a hierarchy. Now and in the future, Clark said, many more people in the organization will be responsible for taking action and initiating strategic activities. As the old hierarchy is beginning to break down, "all of that is creating a huge demand for education," he said.

One of the critical considerations for society, then, is to investigate ways to harness the forces in the market and in technology to support the higher purposes of education. "I believe that one of the biggest effects of the Internet era will be the creation of new kinds of institutions," Clark said, "that will allow us as human beings to pursue those higher purposes" through the great engine of technology.