Getting into e-business is now an imperative. But as companies rush off in search of dotcom fortune, more and more questions are thrown up. Perhaps the only thing that everyone agrees on about the way to do e-business is the need for a lot of learning.
The best way to learn is from each other - preferably those who are a couple of pages ahead of you in the dotcom manual.
Insurance giant Legal & General, for example, has been doing e-business for several years. As with many companies, it started by using the Internet as an electronic brochure and in 1997 moved on to provide a transactional capability for managing flexible mortgages.
At the end of 1997 came a push to business-to-business (B2B) trading, with the launch of an extranet. The latest incarnation is a property database that Legal & General has developed for independent estate agents.
In these few years, Legal & General's e-business director Margaret Smith has seen significant changes in the way the company turns out its e-business. In the early days of brochureware, the approach was informal and relatively unstructured. "Until early l997 the informal structure worked brilliantly," she says. "Then e-business got the official thumbs-up."
When top management realised the importance of e-business, one of the first things they did was to appoint an e-business director. Smith was a former IT director who had requested greater business experience, and had already put in a stint of business process re-engineering, marketing and launched the company's direct insurance business.
She admits there is a minus as well as a plus to the creation of an official e-business director. The up side is that it gives essential focus to e-business within the company - and the all-important City analysts and fund managers anxious for reassurance about the future prosperity of their investments.
"The chief executive was very keen on a separate [e-business division] - it sent out a clear message that we were serious about e-business," says Smith.
But there is a down side. With official status comes the danger of bureaucracy. Instead of lean, mean machines hitting the e-business target, a pot of gluey treacle can clog up the whole process and kill off the innovative spirit.
An awful lot of the glue comes out of IT, warns Smith.
E-projects, she says, "must be done in e-time - rapidly and interactively".
Don't, she urges, apply IT development methodologies - go for e-methodologies.
"We still take hundreds or even thousands of man-days instead of between 25 and 30 man-days for [e-business] projects," says Smith.
There are two sources of treacle - one is the tendency for companies to reinvent the e-business wheel, and to get carried away by bells and whistles. In e-business, says Smith bluntly, "plagiarism is wonderful".
Conversely, too many bells and whistles on the site makes it a nightmare to maintain. "You end up with a legacy Web site," she warns.
The second treacle pot is, of course, the issue of industrial-strength sites and retrofitting e-business systems into the core business systems of the company.
While it is undeniable that your Web site is your window to the world, and poor quality applications can uncomfortably expose your company, the retrofit issue may not automatically apply.
"We don't have to have 24x7x365 [for our Web sites]," says Smith. For those who do need this level of access it is, she agrees, a big problem. But for all that, there is still a lot to be gained from the tactical approach to e-business.
"Things are changing so fast you don't need a big robust strategy," Smith argues.
But it is the mentality of IT to throw up hands in horror at the thought of selecting a motorbike as the corporate courier of e-business rather than a Rolls-Royce.
The problem, says Smith, is far more likely to be cultural - which is where her approach of joint teams for e-business projects comes in.
Smith likes to take a tutti-frutti line on e-business team-building, with key people coming in from everywhere. Crucially, she argues, IT people should be more and more prepared to yield the keys of technology to business people - this will speed up projects no end.
"If we don't free up techies and get business self-authoring, we won't get on," she says. In Smith's experience, a freed-up techie can become surprisingly creative.
"I don't want IT people - I want business people," she says. Hybrid IT professionals, not just hybrid IT managers.
But whatever the constitution of the e-business department, Smith's key message is that the department's very existence should be transitory - a mere temporary focusing of the lens to ignite the fire in the company belly. Eventually, e-business should stop being "something different" and become pervasive throughout the company.
And Smith herself should be moving on to her next job.
Keeping the e-play team lean and mean
Don't let the bureaucracy of the "official e-business department" glue up the works. Stay fast and furious
This was first published in May 2000