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Scholars begin autopsy of digital era

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Industry Standard

March 19, 2001
Web posted at: 12:24 p.m. EST (1724 GMT)

(IDG) -- Some were squandered opportunities, others tragic failures and many just bad ideas. But all failed Net businesses tell an important story.

That's the premise behind a new subspecialty in academia: the corporate autopsy.

From New Haven, Conn., to Nashville, Tenn., scholars are scouring hard drives of former dot-com employees to nail down the historical record of one of the biggest booms in economic history. "To look at this information from an anthropological point of view, you can see what is left, what has survived on a person's computer [who's been] through it all," says David Owens, an assistant professor of Management at Vanderbilt University who is studying 33,000 e-mail messages from a now-defunct technology firm. To Owens, these messages offer an unprecedented opportunity: "You can see people's emotional feelings and perhaps see what's actually going on."

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But whatever the data's academic value, scholars like Owens find themselves struggling to convince companies to turn over the information. In part, it's simply expedient for them not to. As failed Net firms scramble to liquidate their assets to pay off debts, computers and servers are often sold off but their hard drives must first be erased, thus doing away with a trove of data.

But there's also a concern about what's on those computers and servers. Apart from the usual detritus of Web bookmarks, MP3 files and resumes, there's often more-private information such as personal e-mail and nudie pictures the sort of stuff even a dying company doesn't want to let slip out. That's part of the reason why most professors looking for these ready-made case studies get polite but firm rejections, mostly from businesses unwilling to part with information that is potentially embarrassing, in violation of employee confidentiality or downright incriminating.

An inside track can help. Shyam Sunder, a professor of accounting, economics and finance at the Yale School of Management, is one of the few academics lucky enough to secure data from a tech company's servers and hard drives. It just so happened Sunder sat on the company's board. He convinced his fellow board members to turn the firm's records over to Yale, but only after the ailing business ceases all operations. Until then, the company's name must remain a secret.

Sunder hopes to convince other companies to do the same and help "build a history of the supercharged growth," he says. "Most of it is not on paper; it's on hard drives."

These drives are packed with a daunting amount of data: production schedules, marketing strategies, departmental budgets, financial projections. But the digital nature of that data makes it much easier to sift through and analyze than, say, a bunch of files packed in cardboard boxes. "It's easy to get a lot of data quickly," notes Owens. "You can run the statistics on it."

Some execs do recognize the value of a dead dot-com. Young Kim, CEO of CampusNut.com, has worked at a number of Net companies, including the now-defunct Maincampus.com, and is more magnanimous than other dot-bomb chiefs. "I'd want to share the failed experience of Maincampus so other entrepreneurs don't make the same mistakes," says Kim. Yet the company sold its servers after folding last May, so the data is long gone. "The only thing that would be embarrassing," he adds, "is you would see how incompetent we were."

That's exactly what Sunder and his colleagues are looking for. "Saving that data and information is absolutely crucial so we can see what was wrong, what was right and what could have been done better," says Sunder. "If you place any value on business history at all, then this is the thing to do."



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