May 12, 2008 10:26 am

Dean’s column: Kai Peters of Ashridge Business School on Sir Tim Berners-Lee

When the world wide web goes down, my whole day comes to a grinding halt. I cannot work, I cannot play, and all that is left is for me to do something upright and worthy, like going for a walk or, heaven forbid, talking to people.

There are many people who cannot remember a pre-web world. The concept of hyperlinks can be dated back to Vannevar Bush in 1945 and subsequent developments to Ted Nelson and Doug Engelbart. In the 1980s, Vint Cerf and his colleagues developed the internet protocol and the transmission control protocol, and Paul Mockapetris and friends the domain name system.

I recall that it all seemed quite interesting, but not quite there yet. Somewhere out there is still a Gopher site that I made one afternoon at Erasmus University, and I suspect that the fees charged for MBA programmes at the time were somewhat lower than they are today.

Then on Christmas day, 1990, the world changed. Tim Berners-Lee and his colleagues at Cern, the European particle physics lab in Geneva, launched the first successful client-server communication via the internet and the world wide web was born. What Sir Tim managed to do was to make all the pieces of the puzzle fit and, by adding web browsers, servers and editors to the mix, made it possible for Cern to launch the first ever website in August 1991. The next few years were great fun. In the Spring of 1994, and with a tiny budget, two of my then Rotterdam MBA students, Robert Hewins and Daniel Erasmus, built a website with low-tech web editors where one inserted HTML tags manually. That, no doubt, is also out there somewhere.

Sir Tim changed the rules of the game by inventing the web. Suddenly, it was possible to communicate with people all over the world. Electronic brochures turned into virtual retailers and one-way communication turned into social networks so people did not have to go for a walk or talk anymore.

However, Sir Tim represents much more to me than simply the inventor of the web. His invention addressed a real problem: different bits of information resided on different computers in different formats and requiring different programmes to access them. Sir Tim saw this problem and thought he could solve it for his colleagues at Cern. The invention of the world wide web was never a “business plan” nor “proprietary”. In fact, Sir Tim has maintained his commitment to an open technology community, which has given impetus to the open source movement that continues to grow in importance. The setting, at Cern, also points to something else that I believe to have been very valuable, insofar as it is an academic environment from which something truly worthwhile has emerged. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I am an advocate of academic communities that contribute both to business and society at large.

This desire for freedom of information has, however, clashed intensely with the legacy concept of proprietary information. While the idea of being rewarded for creativity is, in theory, supportable, in practice it is no longer enforceable. Digital information is simply too ubiquitous – too easy to replicate and distribute for it to be “sold” for much longer.

One of Rupert Murdoch’s first moves upon acquiring the Wall Street Journal was the abandonment of the paid subscription model for most of the online version – interestingly, he has raised the price for what the WSJ perceives as the highest value information, at least for now.

Music has long been shared within peer-to-peer networks and the concept is something that commercial television has long understood – one does not sell content to the audience, one sells the audience to the advertisers. A song has now become a loss leader for the sale of concert tickets and t-shirts. Video, with the advent of the BBC’s iPlayer, is going the same way.

Is this trend good or bad? From my perspective, anything I have written is a sunk cost and I hope it gets broadly distributed. But I would say that wouldn’t I, given that I am not dependent on royalties to feed my family.

Sir Tim’s current work is also fascinating. The web, for all its splendour, is rather chaotic. Sir Tim is working on a web where further order emerges in terms of knowledge. In promoting the development of the semantics of knowledge and in structuring ontologies, relational structures between knowledge items and domains, he is paving the way for increasingly sophisticated knowledge development and evaluation carried out by computers without human guidance. Much of the work in this area is within the healthcare sector for educational purposes, with computer agents guiding humans through knowledge domains in areas such as diagnosis and therapy. I have been fortunate to have been a non-executive director for the past few years in a Hamburg-based company that designs ontologies to help with backpain care and depression management. It is mind-blowing stuff.

Lastly, Sir Tim is well aware that there is a need to reflect on how we interact with the world around us in the era of the web. His own website, www.w3.org, does two things worth reflecting on. First, he is very open in terms of explaining his ideas – there is a terrific section on “answers for young people” who want to understand the web better, and who are encouraged to develop a love of science and maths. Second, he is mindful that the line between public and private domains can easily be crossed, with serious consequences. Preserving a sense of the private is, therefore, very important for all of us to consider in the Facebook era.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee is a pivotal figure in both business and society. He has pointed out both the opportunities and threats created by the web, while ultimately maintaining a hopeful, not dystopian, perspective of humanity. It is, therefore, important for businesses and business schools to think about the broad implications of technological innovation, rather than to focus on any one particular facet of it.

Kai Peters is chief executive of Ashridge Business School in the UK.

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