Editorial: E-Whippings?

This past month in Miami, an airline maintenance company was charged with murder and manslaughter for the death of the 110 people on the ValuJet airliner that crashed in the Everglades on May 11, 1996.

The company, SabreTech, was also indicted on charges of failure to train personnel who handled the hazardous materials that triggered the crash. According to the indictments, improperly packaged and falsely labeled oxygen generator canisters, exploded and caught fire, causing the tragic, but preventable downing of the DC-9 airliner.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), SabreTech staff failed to include mandatory safety caps on the canisters, in an apparent effort to save $9.46 – that’s $9.46 total. Allegedly, the practice of signing off on shoddy or incomplete work, known as "pencil whipping" was more than encouraged around the company. In an Associated Press story, acting U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis, said SabreTech "put corporate profits ahead of public safety." So, it’s not the international terrorists we need to worry about killing us, just good old-fashioned business greed.

SabreTech maintains that the NTSB report distributes blame among SabreTech and ValuJet, as well as the FAA for its careless supervision. As a frequent traveler I take these acts of disregard very personally.

Also in the news about the time of the NTSB’s report, was the release of the Department of Commerce’s Office of Technology Policy (OTP) report entitled, "The Digital Workforce: Building Infotech Skills At the Speed of Information." The 142-page study provides an exhaustive and sobering examination of "the IT worker challenge." Am I really comparing e-transactions to a plane crash? You’re damn right. The possibilities not only exist; but will occur if the same irresponsible attitudes and "whippings" that allowed hazardous materials to be loaded onto a passenger aircraft, are tolerated in the e-industry.

Am I calling for regulation? No. Do I advocate ad hoc anarchy? Hardly. However, the issue that worries me is the blatant lack of training and supervision surrounding E-commerce.

About 150 million people worldwide now use the Internet. With traffic on the Internet doubling every 100 days. E-commerce is more than ordering books and CDs, or dialing into "976" sites. People are filling prescriptions, performing financial transactions, seeking medical and legal counsel, bathed in the gray light of their desktops, 24-hours a day.

However, while users continue to "exploit" technology, so too can those on the other end – either deliberately or unknowingly causing damage. Just who is behind this next "paradigm shift?" I mean, I know who is fueling it, and who is making money from it; but who is actually qualified to be behind the wheel?

As the OTP report points out, IT contributed to more than a third of real U.S. economic growth between 1995 and 1997. So congratulations. But as my colleague, friend and fellow trend-bucker George Thompson, Editor in Chief of HP Professional, recently observed, "while we may have invested prodigious sums on IT architectures and Internet IPOs, we aren’t nearly investing as much time, energy or money on raising the necessary intellectual capital that we are going to sorely need to keep the e-services utopia from turning dysfunctional."

How extreme is the IT labor shortage? It’s critical. In fact, the average annual growth rate for systems analysts, scientists, and computer engineers should surpass 100 percent by 2006. In other words, over 1.3 million IT workers will be needed to fill new job openings and replace existing workers leaving the field. "Getting – and keeping – the right person, with the right skills at the right time requires extraordinary efforts and innovative practices," concludes the OTP.

So in a world that now knows terms such as IBM’s "pervasive computing" and HP’s "E-Services," basic terms like education, quality and responsibility can’t be left behind. For as frequent users of the e-enterprise, we should all take it personally.