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Roger Clarke's 'Bled 25 Keynote'

The First 25 Years of the Bled eConference

Notes for a Keynote Address
to the 25th Bled eConference, 18 June 2012

Version of 16 June 2012

Roger Clarke **

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Extended Abstract

In 1987, when Joze Gricar conceived what was to be the first Bled eConference, the world was very different from that of 2012. Reagan and Thatcher were in power, but Gorbachev not yet, and the Cold War still chilled Europe. In the computer world, mainframes tussled with minis. Data communications meant 2400 bps modems. The only inexpensive local area network (LAN) was Appletalk at 230 kbps, and IBM PCs were only just beginning to talk even to IBM's own System/38. A few leading inter-organisational systems existed, such as airline reservation systems, SWIFT, ATMs and EFTPOS, but each used on its own expensive private network. Organisational applications of computing had matured beyond data processing, but information systems were still mostly internal to organisations.

For the first few years, the Conference focussed on Electronic Data Interchange (EDI). This was the electronic transfer of documents in standardised electronic form, between organisations, in an automated manner, directly from a computer application in one organisation to an application in another. In global and local political life, the period 1988-92 saw a great deal of change, with the Berlin Wall coming down, the Cold War ending, and Slovenia gaining its independence. In the world of information systems, change was less dramatic. Understanding of EDI's promise and challenges improved. LANs became commonplace, inter-organisational networks shifted from one-to-one arrangements to star and hub topologies, and competitive and collaborative approaches to implementation were proposed, implemented and studied.

By 1995, improvements in networking, and the impending public availability of the US Internet backbone, enabled corporations to communicate effectively and efficiently with one another. The conference series was by now well-established and supported a substantial community, so Gricar migrated the theme from EDI to eCommerce.

At this stage, purchasing and marketing applications were the primary focus, and leading organisations were being increasingly strategic in their outlook. Cascading topologies were created, to provide linkages along the industry value-chain. A new opportunity had emerged for organisations to market to those consumers who were early adopters of the Mosaic and then Netscape web-browsers. Such extra-organisational systems adopted necessarily simplified approaches, because consumers and small and micro-businesses had limited technical expertise and little or no technical support.

From 1995 onwards, with large numbers of scholars being attracted to the event from throughout the world, and a Graduate Student Consortium and Student ePrototype Bazaar well-established, the conference's Research Stream was formalised, with full refereeing of papers, and Special Sections in the major journals IJEC and EM.

For 9 years, from 1996 to 2004, the conference matured along with the burgeoning field. Applications in the public sector became much more common. The Internet boom and bust featured enormous creativity - combined with considerable naivety - and large numbers of different forms of eCommerce were experimented with. Researchers had no difficulty finding interesting companies, sectors and systems to study. Searches were conducted for success and failure factors, and for ways to overcome the impediments to adoption.

Beside the lake at Bled, managers and executives had always mingled with university researchers. But Gricar was also attracting large numbers of participants from international organisations, and from national governments and industry associations. Panels, workshops and business meetings enhanced regional and international collaboration, and contributed to Slovenia's rapid entry to membership of the European Community, a mere 13 years after achieving independence.

Between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s, most conference themes were concerned with organisational applications, and internationalisation. As early as 1998, however, the conference theme referred to 'the Information Society'; and over a decade ago, in 2001, the scope was declared to be 'e-Everything', including e-Commerce, e-Government, e-Household and e-Democracy.

The conference management and the business and industry stream have always been in the hands of the Faculty of Organizational Sciences at the University of Maribor. The international focus has been reflected firstly in the role of Research Stream Chair - which has been in the hands of 16 senior professors from 9 different countries - and in the research papers themselves - with about 50 countries having been represented on the formal program.

With effect from 2005, Gricar again adapted the overall conference theme. The term eConference was coined, to reflect the event's comprehensive scope, encompassing all aspects of electronic interaction. Andreja Pucihar has brought a fresh approach since taking over the role of Conference Chair in 2009. Successive events have considered more specific sub-themes such as integration, values, trust, and in 2012 the dependability of ICT-based systems - the design and creation of reliable and trustworthy eStructures, eProcesses, eOperations and eServices.

The body of knowledge generated by the Bled eConference comprises over 1,000 papers, including 815 fully-refereed papers in the 18 years from 1995 to 2011. An analysis of the dominant words used in the papers' titles shows a steady progression from EDI (until 1997), via electronic commerce (to 2004), to electronic business (to 2007) and on to mobile commerce (particularly 2003-08).

A deeper analysis shows that categories of eBusiness have accounted for 60% of the key terms, with a further 20% reflecting corporate perspectives, such as inter-organisational systems, supply chains, business models, business processes, eStrategies and virtual organisation. The remainder have covered a variety of research topics, most commonly adoption and impediments, and trust factors. Economic aspects have dominated, but eGovernment, eDemocracy, personal usage and social media have attracted somewhat more attention over the last decade.

The 25th eConference provided an opportunity to reflect on the past and look to the future. To complement the 42 papers in the Proceedings, which report on current research, a Special Section of 9 papers has been published, each of which reviews the treatment of a particular topic across an extended period. Two papers are meta-analyses of the Bled corpus as a whole. Categories of eBusiness are represented by two papers on eRegions and Mobile Commerce. Four papers consider Corporate Perspectives - business models, project management, inter-organisational systems (IOS) and procedural controls - and one paper addresses the Research Topic of user acceptance.

History is interesting in its own right; but the Bled eConference has been imbued with an instrumentalist orientation throughout its life. An appreciation of history is valuable in order to exploit the knowledge that the past makes available to us, and to avoid repeating past mistakes. All of these papers accordingly look back in order to look forward.

Zimmerman notes that most contributions in relation to eRegions have been informal, and proposes more systematic study of initiatives and of success and failure factors. Carlsson and Walden see mobile commerce at last maturing towards mobile value systems. Bouwman et al. foresee improvements in tools to support the integration of business model analysis with business process analysis and enterprise architecture. Cameron shows the need to accelerate the change in project management thinking from the era of intra-organisational systems, by paying more attention to the social and organisational factors that primarily determine project outcomes. Bons et al. suggest more imaginative balancing between blind trust and controls, as a means of overcoming impediments to the use of inter-organisational systems. Klein et al. see the longstanding focus on IOS gravitating towards an information infrastructure (II) perspective. Van der Heijden sees user acceptance research moving from surveys of what people say they do, towards more observation of what people actually do.

The last 25 years have seen a great deal of maturation, variously of eTechnologies, of their application and management, and of research work in the area. The phenomena that lie within the Conference's scope have changed rapidly, and people's perceptions, capabilities and expectations have mutated quickly as well, sometimes shifting sideways - with inevitably disruptive effects, variously economic, organisational and social. It might be thought that the 'electronic interaction' frame of reference that has provided the locus for the Bled Conferences for 25 years has run its course. But a great deal of change still before us - in eTechnology, in eTechnology-in-use, and in the politics of eTechnology. The trend towards virtualisation has not only affected computers and computer-based processes and storage; it has also influenced organisational structures and employment. Virtualisation's impacts and implications, and the means to manage them, are still poorly understood and in need of careful study.

Even without such change, there are many ongoing challenges. For example, the business models of social media corporations are, quite simply, anti-social. And this is just one of the more extreme examples of the dominance of economic drivers over social needs, and of corporate and government interests over consumer and citizen interests. Bled needs to be at the forefront of investigations into how to achieve much better balances between organisational and human needs than presently exist.

To some extent, this reflects the need for more diversity in the unit of study used by researchers. The perspective of a single organisation is valid, but so too are those of industry segments and sectors, of regions, of nations and of supra-national economic collectives or blocs such as the EU, NAFTA and APEC. Beyond the economic is the social. Research needs to reflect the interests of not-for-profits, NGOs and associations, of communities, of consumer and citizen segments, of social groups, and of individuals.

The coming years will see yet more intensity of data collection, through video cameras pointed at cars and at people, and through smart meters, and perhaps shortly through an 'Internet of Things'. Personal mobile devices are increasingly broadcasting individuals' locations to anyone who wants to know it. Organisations are designing devices and applications to disclose individual's activities, including their communications, the content they access, and hence their interests and opinions. Coupled with the designed-in intrusiveness are denial of anonymity, and denial of multiple identities, and the imposition of personal identification numbers, insecure signature keys, so-called face recognition and biometrics.

Researchers are confronted with a further challenge. The old world of research has only been concerned with describing past realities. Empiricism is valuable, because it forces interpretations to be based on observations. But empiricism is inherently backwards-looking. It has to wait for phenomena to stabilise before it can deliver any information of value. The subject-matter of the Bled eConference is dynamic. For contributions to be design-oriented, and to point towards actionable interventions, authors have to carefully consider the level of academic rigour that can be achieved while ensuring relevance to the present and the immediate future.

The subject-matter of the early Bled eConferences now seems quaint. But the event has given rise to a community and a tradition that will be highly valuable as the world confronts the challenges of designing and managing electronic interactions among organisations, among people, and between organisations and people.

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of N.S.W., and a Visiting Professor in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

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