Information Technology as a Change Agent


Educom Review table of contents

 February 1999


This article was published in Educom Review, Volume 34 Number 1 1999. The copyright is copyright is shared by the author(s) and EDUCAUSE.

An EDUCAUSE publication



Information Technology
as a Change Agent

Growing light bulb graphic

Technically, there are four major trends that are behind many of these changes: digitization, storage, the increase in processing power, and universal communications. All four have an impact on business and higher education.


Information technology makes it possible to digitize information. Whether text, images, sound or large data streams, digitization has allowed us to effectively create a worldwide "language" with which to communicate. Virtually everything can be translated into a common currency of bits and bytes.

Powerful new communications technologies are giving networks the bandwidth needed to handle rich but space-consuming digitized information such as video, medical images and great works of art. Networks are developing the speed to support interaction, enabling two-way communication and collaboration. Digital content carried over high-speed networks makes the once improbable entirely possible.


Add to this trend another. The capacity of data storage devices is growing by 60 percent each year, and data access rates are increasing dramatically. The result is that digital storage of information is increasingly efficient and convenient. Digital magnetic storage is already less costly than paper and will continue to be the dominant medium for the storage of active data. Even denser storage-densities of 3 billion bits per square inch have been recorded-allows the text of 375 average-sized novels to be stored in a single square inch of disk surface. CD-ROMs are rapidly becoming the preferred storage and publishing medium for text, images, full-motion video, electronic catalogs, games and software. Current prototypes of multilayer optical disks (with 10 disks)-a high-density CD-have the capability to store 6 billion bytes of information, equivalent to more than 1 million pages of text.

The result is that we can now store and integrate all kinds of information to create more powerful and engaging educational, entertainment or informational material.

Processing Power

The processing power at our disposal has increased tremendously over time. In the first half of the twentieth century, electromechanical machines punched, tabulated and sorted cards at high speed. Wires, wheels and levers formed our early processors. Soon, even the fastest punch card machines were bypassed by technological change-the vacuum tube. The electronic computer incorporated vacuum tubes as well as a "stored program" concept that expanded the machine's ability to do complex work at high speed. Transistors gave birth to the next generation of computer technology. Replacing vacuum tubes with transistors shortened the time needed for electrical pulses to complete a circuit. It all sounds archaic when compared to the silicon chips that now dominate the computer industry.

The rapid growth in microprocessor performance will continue; expect performance to double every 18 months. Clock rates will continue to move ahead rapidly, exceeding 1 GHz or billions of instructions per second by the next decade. By 2000, a typical client microprocessor will have the capability of today's large servers.

Universal Communications

In this decade, we will move beyond client-server computing and packet-based Internet connections to global connectivity, which will profoundly change access to content, services and communications.

Wireless communications and increasing bandwidth will change the landscape, enabling transparent access across all networks. Things will work together without being wired together-transceivers will be built into most products. Personal area networks (PANs) will be pervasive. Local area networks (LANs) will be ubiquitous, with integrated voice and data. Radio frequency will be used within individual buildings or small campuses, and infrared will be used within rooms or other enclosed spaces. Wide area networks (WANs) will provide worldwide universal access through technologies such as cellular digital packet data, satellite networks and two-way paging. Communication-device form factors, i.e., the size of the "computer," will decrease while function increases, resulting in wearable computers. Imagine a wristwatch that can receive messages and send acknowledgments!

As function, portability and battery life improve, our digital tool kit will always be with us. Automatic intermittent wireless connections will ensure that we have instant access to anything we need, wherever we are. Software sophistication, user interfaces and systems management will continue to improve. As a result, users will become increasingly comfortable interacting with computer systems. More and more, individuals will get connected and stay connected.

There are likely to be several results from these technological changes. First, everyone will become a technology user because costs will be low enough and compatibility will be high. New software will allow the broader population of users to easily deal with ever more complex systems. Second, integration within and among organizations will become pervasive. We already see this in the form of electronic links among suppliers, distributors and customers. Finally, we will process and transport bits instead of things and people. In many cases information will displace the physical. Working this way will be faster and less costly, as well as less harmful to the environment. The result is that we will be living in a networked world.

Growing light bulb graphic


Manufacturing is being transformed from its industrial-age model to one that relies on global networks. Changes are apparent from process to product.


  • Customers "custom design" products such as automobiles and clothing, electronically transmitting their requirements to remote locations capable of quickly manufacturing and distributing these products.


  • Small- and medium-sized companies advertise their manufacturing capabilities over computer networks and efficiently bid on projects required by other companies.


  • "Software system brokers" connect users who have a need for temporary access to sophisticated manufacturing tools that would be too expensive to acquire.


  • Manufacturers and suppliers use "intelligent" procurement systems to ease and speed parts procurement, as well as billing and payment transactions, to reduce costs, to improve accuracy and to meet customer demands.

For example, in building a new facility to manufacture its Saturn cars, General Motors developed an information infrastructure to enable Saturn and its numerous suppliers to operate as one virtual company. Through the implementation of a production scheduling database and the use of electronic data interchange (EDI), Saturn and its suppliers reduced overhead and increased cooperation. Education is required to conceptualize and execute these improvements. The need goes beyond simply analytical or technical skills to understand what is feasible from a manufacturing point of view. It also requires creative and practical skills that allow employees to see new possibilities and make them happen.

Health care Most countries face similar challenges in providing health care to their people-spiraling costs and access to good care and information. Networking applications are already being used to help address these challenges.


  • Community health care information networks allow physicians, hospitals, patients and others access to critical health information.


  • Desktop videoconference applications allow patients to consult with physicians and specialists at regional and national centers.


  • Advanced networks enable full-motion video communication and high-speed transmission of critical medical images, such as X-rays and CAT scans, facilitating consultations with medical experts for both primary diagnoses and second opinions.


  • Where hospital care may not be available, or for patients needing long-term care (such as chronically ill children or the elderly), home computers allow patients access to instructions for home treatment and give them access to the expert advice of doctors through e-mail.

Some experts estimate that telecommunications applications could reduce health care costs by between $36 billion and $100 billion each year while improving quality of service and increasing access.


Governments around the world are turning to information processing and networking technologies to solve the dilemma of growing budget deficits, increasing demand for services, and proliferating data that must be collected and processed. For example, in Singapore, more efficient operations are made possible by integrated port information systems that support the electronic sharing of data and documents: more than 80 percent of port information is handled electronically. TradeNet, a system in operation since 1989, has reduced the processing time for trade documents from an average of two days to 10 minutes and has reduced the number of forms required for a ship to clear the harbor from 20 to one (IBM 1997).

Making it easier and more convenient for people to complete transactions-linking information and experts via the network-has improved the efficiency of many processes. The Colorado Department of Labor has converted eight unemployment offices around the state from traditional counter-based operations to sites supported by computer kiosks. At these locations, an individual can complete an application and search for information directly from the kiosk without having to deal with any paper forms. When there are questions or someone would like to discuss specific job openings, they use the videoconferencing facility at the kiosk to speak with a counselor located in Denver. The kiosks meet the needs of citizens by providing user-friendly access to information as well as expert help. The state benefits by having "at the source" entry of data and by minimizing office space and workforce requirements.

New opportunities

Contrary to fears, technology is not eliminating good jobs. Actually, technology is generating more jobs, especially those requiring problem-solving ability, and those jobs are paying better and better. Where once a teller handled transactions one by one, now a systems analyst upgrades the software for automatic teller machines. There is a growing demand for truck drivers who can use computers and modems to make just-in-time deliveries and for auto technicians who can repair the electronic systems that guide today's cars (Reich 1996). Compensation for IT professionals increases approximately 20 percent each year (ITAA 1997). One of these new opportunities is electronic commerce. As more commercial and industrial transactions are nationally and internationally linked, electronic commerce networks are emerging. These networks allow a wide variety of transactions to take place:


  • a credit card customer pays for a purchase electronically


  • a government customs officer enters the amount of customs duty an importer owes electronically


  • factories order parts and maintain inventories automatically, as do retailers


  • transportation systems are managed electronically, coordinating arrivals, departures and exchange of baggage on flights. With electronic commerce, the productivity of business transactions within and across nations will be improved. International trade will become more active, with transactions and communications made easier.

Beyond electronic commerce, IT is allowing existing businesses to be reconceptualized; entirely new enterprises are being created. Consider the changes the World Wide Web (WWW) has enabled in the airline industry as just one example. The first step was to allow employee access to information via the Web. Then home pages became accessible to the public. As the business became progressively more Web-enabled, flight schedules were posted to the Web and queries could be made. Then, frequent flyer applications were accepted online, followed by the ability to purchase tickets via the Web. Now we have ticketless travel. Technology has enabled new opportunities for the airline industry as well as its customers. Behind the scenes, a multitude of other opportunities and new jobs have emerged. Consultants are needed to create strategies. Webmasters are in demand to create, maintain and update Web pages. Other experts ensure the security of company and customer data, and others see to the integration of existing systems with a Web front-end.

As a result of technology, entirely new opportunities are being created through the use of customer profiles to tailor standard products. New startups and well-established industry leaders are now offering customized goods and services over the network, collecting valuable customer information as they go. Developing and leveraging a personal profile for each individual customer is an increasingly common strategy. attracts customers with a value proposition that permits access to more than a million titles at lower prices than most book stores. Once inside their Web site, customers can post their own reviews of books, exchange e-mail with their favorite authors, and request electronic alerts about their favorite subjects or authors. Each interaction adds to Amazon's knowledge about individual customers, adds to their growing virtual community, and steadily increases barriers to customer switching vendors. is a greeting card startup that quickly seized the Internet potential to feature direct access to 20,000 cards, with custom greetings and U.S. Postal Service mailing. Their Personal Memory feature automatically reminds subscribers of key upcoming events and which card was sent last year.

A more complex business model involves the assembly of standardized components into a complete customized offering to meet the specific needs of a single customer. For example, Levi Strauss has created the "Personal Pair." It requires six accurate measurements instead of the traditional two measurements (waist and inseam), and will guarantee that its product provides a perfect fit. Levi saves 75 percent of inventory and distribution costs. At the same time they are able to charge a premium price. Customer satisfaction is outstanding. Customer size dimensions are captured in a database for future orders.

The transformation

All around us we find evidence of tailored products, targeted marketing and customization. Consumer demand for more choices, higher quality, lower cost, better service and convenient access points is a dominant force affecting all industries-including higher education.

It is not just that consumers want goods that match their personal preferences; IT has enabled enterprises to understand and meet an increasing variety of consumer needs. Information technology enables firms to meet consumer demands by supporting


  • product development for hundreds of thousands of products;


  • selection and management of hundreds of micro-market segments;


  • efficient administration of millions of client relationships;


  • product cycles measured in weeks or months instead of years; and


  • direct consumer access through a variety of access points.

Changes in technology, global economics, the increasing value of time, and other customer preferences are causing the alteration of traditional business and industry models. These shifts are evident in the structure of industries, in the barriers to entry, the markets they choose to serve, and the channels for distribution as well as their products.


    FROM   TO
Structure   Vertical integration   Multi-firm value nets
Market entry   Restricted, regulated
High barriers
  Open, deregulated
Low barriers
Markets   Mass market
Local, regional
Channels   Static channels
Human intermediaries
  Dynamic hybrid channels
New "infomediaries"
Products   Standard
Narrow choice
  Personally tailored
Broad choice

In short, IT is changing the structure of business and industry. Businesses are becoming more reliant on complex webs of suppliers and customers, competitors and complementors. Barriers to entry are no longer predominantly physical or financial; putting up a storefront or managing an inventory may no longer be required. Potentially, anyone who can put up a Web page can be in business. We are moving from mass markets to markets of one. Geographic limitations are being transcended; most markets are global. Reaching customers and doing business in a networked world is different.

Growing light bulb graphic

Skeptics still question whether technology will have an impact on higher education. Even though many are calling for the transformation of higher education, an equal number see no reason to change. These "traditionalists" often cite how stable higher education has been for hundreds of years. Since the Gutenberg Bible was printed in 1456 using movable type, the technology of information storage, retrieval and transmission-the university's basic technology-has remained essentially constant until the current era. Indeed, the use of written records to supplement oral teaching goes back to the fifth century b.c.e. Since their inception, universities and colleges have relied upon lectures, discussions and the written word because these were the only technologies available.

Information technology has opened new, fundamentally different options for higher education, both in how to run "the business of higher education" as well as in teaching and learning. History demonstrates that fundamental technological change ultimately begets significant structural change, regardless of whether the affected participants choose to join or resist the movement. The changes that universities have weathered over the centuries did not upend their basic technology. Information technology does (Massy 1997).

It is revealing to consider the last great shift in information processing-the one from orality to literacy as mediated by the technology of the alphabet. Socrates lamented the destruction of memory by writing. Plato predicted, correctly, the loss of the capacity to memorize large bodies of acoustical material (Miller 1995).

When printing emerged in the late fifteenth century it was not always welcome, either. "Filippo di Strata declared in the late fifteenth century, 'The world has got along perfectly well for six thousand years without printing, and has no need to change now.' Johannes Trithemius, in In Praise of Scribes, says, 'Printed books will never be the equivalent of handwritten codices...The simple reason is that copying by hand involves more diligence and industry'" (Noam 1997, 3).

When movies were invented and did not show Shakespeare's plays but vaudeville dancers and even bare ankles, traditionalists sought a ban. Later, when sound was introduced into motion pictures, musicians' unions insisted that sound movies were economic and cultural murder. When the radio arrived, researchers noted that "Parents have become aware of a puzzling change in the behavior of their children..." And the telephone was driving people permanently insane (Noam 1997).

Within the next decade, IT and its effects as a transformation agent will have a dramatic impact on our lifestyles, workstyles and education. Technology will become ubiquitous. Its presence and power will be taken for granted. This revolution holds great promise and presents great challenges. It will be difficult to manage but impossible to resist.

Growing light bulb graphic

Reprinted from What Business Wants from Higher Education by Diana G. Oblinger and Anne-Lee Verville ©1998 by the American Council on Education and The Oryx Press. Used with permission from the American Council on Education and The Oryx Press, 4041 N. Central Ave., Suite 700, Phoenix, AZ 85012, 800-279-6799.




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