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The Internet-based Manager

I once interviewed Alan Shugart, the founder of disk drive giant Seagate Technologies, in his dark office at corporate headquarters in Scotts Valley, California. He had a PC on his desk, so I asked Shugart, as head of then one of the most powerful technology companies in the world, how he used technology in running the company. This was in the early 1900s, before the Internet as we know it.

His answer: Not much; to track business trends, mostly. What about e-mail? I asked. "I've banned e-mail," he harumphed. E-mail encourages managers to stay in their offices and fire off small-picture decisions and orders rather than getting out and meeting with employees and customers to get the big picture.

A decade later, aren't we still asking the same question about the Internet as a tool for managers? Sure, it has helped businesses reach new customers, facilitate transactions, and build virtual storefronts with the touch of a button. But what has it done for managers in running their departments more effectively?

Here's what educator and author Gary Hamel says in a recent Harvard Business Online blog post titled, Moving Management Online.

"When it comes to the management models that predominate most companies -- the methods and processes used to create strategies, set goals, make critical decisions, allocate resources, and align human effort -- the Web's impact has been comparatively modest."

Hamel believes this is about to change, in two very powerful ways. First, we will use the Internet to amplify human capabilities; "that is, to create an environment in which individuals are empowered, equipped, and encouraged to give the very best of themselves."

The second breakthrough will come when Internet tools help us aggregate and coordinate our productivity. As he says, no single person can build an airliner or operating system, but we need big-time help in getting all the moving parts of innovation to mesh.

"Improving managerial effectiveness entails getting better at both amplifying and aggregating human capability -- and it is this challenge that brings us back to the Internet. Over the next decade or two, it is likely that Internet will grow into the most powerful tool that humanity has ever possessed for boosting human accomplishment."

That's a big idea, and worth debating. Hamel will weigh in with the second part of his thesis soon, but you can join the conversation now. Have Internet-based applications and services helped you manage better? What Web 1.0/2.0/3.0 tools tools do you need to make yourself and your organization more effective?

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