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Tune in to the membership Communications technology could put professional institutions in closer touch with their members.

Interactive digital television and internet sites could provide one of the main interfaces between professional institutions like the ICE and their members - in as little as five years time. Recent developments in communications technology should allow professionals across the country to participate in institutional affairs more easily, more regularly, more efficiently and more cheaply than they do now.

Interactivity, whether via television or website, promises a step change in the way organisations conduct business. Digital television now makes it possible to hold interactive lectures and seminars without all the participants needing to be in the same place.

The internet already provides a forum for dialogue of myriad other types: workshops for things as diverse as technical and legal briefings, election campaigning and voting and the airing of policy issues. The flexibility of electronic communication and its efficiency in reaching a diverse, far-flung, and time-pressed audience could also change the way in which institutions use their outposts, its prophets say.

Squaring up fully to the future demands that institutions like the ICE take the possibilities and implications of the global communications revolution further, according to speakers at the Foundation for Science & Technology's annual seminar last week. Entitled 'The future of learned and professional societies: threats and opportunities in the 21st century', it delivered the resounding message: Institutions that don't adopt the technologies used as a matter of course by their members will struggle to remain relevant and ultimately to retain members.

The ICE is far from oblivious to the march of technology. Hits on its website, managed by Thomas Telford Ltd, have grown twenty-fold in three years. Within the website, the ICE's chat room - an electronic forum for debate on a constantly changing range of engineering and Institutional topics - has recently been made public to broaden the number and range of views expressed.

Meanwhile, the ICE has been active in producing bi-monthly videos on technical and legal issues with the Television Education Network. These are available via subscription, setting a possible precedent for the transmission of some information via a subscription television channel.

At last week's seminar, Institute of Chartered Secretaries & Administrators chief executive John Ainsworth pointed out that society is, almost subconsciously, embracing digital television and the interactivity offered by the web. These are media already being exploited to huge effect by interests as diverse as supermarkets and football teams - that is, they can deliver specialised content to niche audiences.

Digital television and broad-band cable, meanwhile, promise a proliferation of channels and plummeting broadcasting costs. We're already in a Wayne's World era of one-person TV channels, notes Ainsworth. And if interactive shopping doesn't sound very ICE, it is worth remembering that the Open University has been disseminating rarefied information to front room scholars for decades. The OU syllabus is diverse, not to mention acclaimed. And it hasn't had anything like the benefits of cost and flexibility on offer now.

Where the OU has relied on its students to be caffeine-fuelled or equipped with a video recorder and fitted its programming into terrestrial television's graveyard slots - typically 4.00am or 5.00am on BBC2 - digital television offers 24 hours a day, every day broadcastability. With broad band and fibre optic cable, as many as 500 channels could be available, making it feasible for a big institution to have several channels running simultaneously. Alternatively, institutions could supply their members with dedicated channels for reply. Media experts anticipate a blurring between TV and the internet.

Following words with action Ainsworth delivered the axiom: ' Your future is determined by the structures you employ.' His ICSA aims to be a 'virtual organisation', broadcasting the full range of institute affairs, interactively, to its members by 2005. From his perspective, a learned society can use electronic media to fulfil its remit at least as effectively as by calling people to a physical meeting place. If people can tune into institutional affairs from work or home rather than spending time and money trekking across the country, they are more likely to participate, Ainsworth argues.

Ainsworth believes that for many professional institutions, electronic media will negate the need for large centralised headquarters. He points out that the by now old hat concept of a 'global village' ushered in by modern communications is all about communities formed around interest rather than proximity.

But global village working methods suggest that information flow might become richer and more plentiful. It should also become easier for the ICE to convene groups to tackle specific institutional or engineering issues. Members could debate routes to membership for incorporated engineers or the suitability of the New Engineering Contract for tunnelling, or emergency via the Institution's interactive media portals.

Andrew Mylius

If you want to find out more about how communications technology can help your career and train your staff then come to the NCE conference 'Online training for construction - building the business case. For details call Micol Klippel Arden on (0207) 637 8692.

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