Nick Booth analyses the latest IT gold rush
If you've worked in the IT industry for more than five minutes your name will be on all kinds of junk-mail-generating databases. In which case, you can't fail to have noticed how popular e-commerce training courses have become. Everyone, even the government, knows it will be crucial to come to terms with this mysterious new entity. More pertinently, there's tons of money to be made in e-commerce. But, as with many of IT's 'gold rushes' before, nobody really knows with any certainty where all this money is going to be unearthed and those that think they know are keeping quiet.
All we do know is that e-commerce skills will be at a premium. Precisely which skills, nobody knows, but there are plenty of people willing to take your money to train you in something vaguely e-commerce related. If, in later life, this enables you to fully exploit the commercial opportunities that e-commerce will bring, this will be an added bonus. Your success story will be hijacked and published on marketing brochures to promote, say, MBA courses in e-commerce.
According to the publicity machine for one MBA course, e-commerce under-graduates are being headhunted by the big hitters in e-business before they've even completed their studies. Companies such as Razorfish, MediaLab and Excite have all used MBA courses as recruiting grounds for their next highly paid e-business strategists, they say.
Is this true? This all sounds very familiar to anyone who remembers previous skill shortages. They said the same about fourth-generation programming languages (4GLs) a decade ago. These new relational programming languages were going to 'revolutionise business'. You didn't need programming skills but you did need business acumen and, well, a small degree of technical literacy. Marry the two together, through a training course in 4GLs, and in no time you'd be filtering all non-personal callers through your recruitment agent.
Except, of course, it didn't work out that way. The skills gap in 4GL expertise was never closed and these days few people even remember it because inevitably something more exciting came along to replace it. The dilemma in IT is frequently which skill-shortage bandwagon to jump on. Should you get this one, or will something better come along in a minute?
The danger for anyone contemplating an e-business course is that they may repeat the experiences of those who wasted years of their free time trying to jump on the 4GL bandwagon. If history repeats itself, tens of thousands of pounds will be gambled by people nationwide, only to find that, after devoting their evenings, week-ends, or even whole months at a time, they have a qualification that's of no use to anyone. As those who studied 4GL will testify, when a skill is in demand, anyone with any knowledge is out in the market making a fortune.
Many 4GL training courses were run by Cobol retired programmers with no knowledge of 4GL at all. Are the new crop of e-commerce MBAs or HNDs being run along similar lines?
Dr Ashley Braganza of the Cranfield School of Management agrees that there are some very dodgy operators out there in the training market. When buying any new product in a new market, you should adopt the trusted brands. "When e-commerce burst onto the scenes two or three years ago, we were concerned at the speed at which everything took off. We were keen to avoid the hype and learn what we were doing before we started shooting from the hip. There are a lot of courses that have nothing to say and contribute even less," says Braganza. If the suppliers of skills seem pessimistic, you should hear what they say on the demand side. Ian Ross is the managing director of MRI, which hosts e-businesses or companies and is always in the market for people with technical and business skills. "These e-commerce MBAs are currently useless," he splutters. "How can they be any good? There isn't enough material, experience and good old fashioned tried-and-tested case studies to make any real comparative evaluation. The concept of e-commerce hasn't spanned four years, even. What you need as a business is to find key staff with a proven track record in maintaining a profitable e-business. We've all been burnt taking on 'experts', paying them inflated market rates and having an unfathomable mess to deal with as your company is used as a training ground. It's all very dangerous for an employer."
Braganza accepts this but points out that the courses designed these days are a lot more pragmatic. "Technology's never been any good without the business knowledge to apply it. And vice versa. We have two constituents we can cater for in our courses. First, there's the people from dotcom start-ups who often have no business experience and need to learn some of the principles. And more importantly, we can take people with good knowledge and experience in business and devise modules that help them realise what technology can do for them," says Braganza.
At Cranfield the emphasis is definitely more strategic than technical. Any e-commerce course has a duty to teach people how e-commerce is affecting business, advises Braganza, so avoid any course that does not cover how e-commerce affects industry as a whole, how it affects companies internally and what companies should be doing with their stakeholders - shareholders, suppliers, customers and anyone else who affects the prosperity of the company.
One of the duties of a good course, he says, is to teach people how little business has changed. The marketing messages behind e-commerce have confused people about what it can do. Never trust anyone who says e-commerce changes all the rules of business, says Braganza. "I've seen a lot of people, who I thought were too long in the tooth to fall for all that dotcom crap, suddenly start acting as if everything's changed. It hasn't. Especially the unpleasant stuff like needing discipline and deliverable profits," says Braganza. "The irony is, it's the business grounding that is much more valuable than the technology."
All you really need from an MBA, he says, is a technology module that gives you an overview of the possibilities of technology. That's a lot harder than you think, warns Andy Coutts, a director of e-Centre, a 16,000 member organisation that draws up standards and practices for e-commerce. "We try to instill in traditional bricks-and-mortar businesses an awareness of e-commerce, but sometimes the very mention of the word makes them resemble rabbits trapped in the headlights of a speeding juggernaut. The irony is, they've got a far better grounding than someone who doesn't know the basics of business."
Nothing beats experience
Although Coutts advises people on getting the right mixture of "new old skills and old new skills" through masters degrees and MBAs, he agrees that, at this stage, something more pragmatic is called for in the short term. Forget full-time study, he says. "If you turn your back on this industry for five minutes, you'll get left way behind. You're better off doing some sort of monitored study or part-time theory work to augment your practical experience," says Coutts.
Besides which, academia isn't mature enough yet to address anyone on e-commerce, according to Mike O'Hagan, the co-founder of Big Blue Steel Tiger, an e-commerce integrator and developer. Despite the practical experience he gained in setting up systems for companies such as Lastminute.com and Interbrew, O'Hagan wanted to study e-commerce as part of the MBA he is sitting at Reading University. The problem was that e-commerce modules aren't available. "A lot of the big schools view e-commerce as just another route to market that doesn't warrant its own all-singing, all dancing course."
Nonsense, says Andy McGovern, who has been taken on by Unisys as an information services specialist after completing an e-business course. He argues that it will almost certainly help your career, as long as you pick the right balance. "The MBA course I attended had an e-business element and, coupled with my e-business-focused dissertation, this helped me obtain my e-business consultant position at Unisys and had a definite effect on my salary," says McGovern.
The old and the new
This illustrates the difference between the older generation of IT companies and the new e-commerce start-ups, says Alan Scutt, vice-president of Clear Commerce. "We don't necessarily need someone who has been on a course. What we need is experience. That's what makes you valuable, not the qualifications. All the head hunters I know say there's a real shortage of people out there with e-business experience. If someone has done a course to understand e-commerce, that clearly shows initiative, but we would still have to start them off at the bottom because, without know-how, they're not the finished article," says Scutt.
If you're reading this article, the chances are you're already doing the hardest part of ascending the summit of e-commerce; getting practical knowledge. This is what will make you more marketable. A pure e-business course seems pointless, according to the consensus of opinion we have canvassed here. The tricky part is finding a course that fits into your schedule (See box, far left). Of course, you could bluff your way in and hope nobody finds out. As generations of people have discovered, what they don't tell you about degrees is that, at then end of them, nobody wants you without experience. Experience, however, is something you just can't fake.
Suits you: What sort of course is best for you?
There is a huge range of academic study from which to choose. Portsmouth University claims to be the first in the country to offer an MA in marketing with e-commerce. It also offers an MSC in e-commerce with marketing. These are fine if you're new to IT, but if you're already on the e-commerce bandwagon, you don't want to have to get off and watch it go thundering into the distance while you study. E-business or e-commerce is offered as a module for MBAs now at courses run by the University of North London, UMIST, Cardiff and, as we have seen, Reading University. These can all be taken as part-time courses.
Some companies are sponsoring staff to study e-commerce. Web consultancy Clockwork Web, for example, is paying for Paul Wreford-Brown to study a post graduate diploma in e-commerce three evenings a week at BirkBeck College in London. He won't have a social life until summer 2002.
Not that Paul will instantly sell his skills to the highest bidder once he has completed the course. Often companies will pay for staff but, understandably, will attempt to bind their employees into working for them for the next three to five years.
A more affordable, and flexible, option is offered by Acadamee, an online learning company. It costs £1,500 but can be studied in your free time. Studying online means you have an 'e-coach', or mentor. Still, if you're going to study e-commerce you might as well get into the spirit of the thing and do it online. The course is devised by content experts, learning designers and developers.
"The only effective e-learning you do will be at work. We devise activities so people can apply their learning and develop their knowledge and understanding," says Simon Hayward, the CEO of this new training organisation. "The Web is pervasive so it's much more sensible and constructive to help you develop your work as you go along, rather than work on projects and theory that have no connection with your work."
University challenge: Where to find e-business courses
www.elec.qmw.ac.uk 020 7539 2692
E-Commerce Assessment Courses are run by Clicksure in association with Oxford University
The Virtual University
This online university runs a variety of courses relevant to e-business www.virt-u.com
The Centre of Expertise in Electronic Commerce, UMIST, Manchester
0161 200 3307
The eCommerce Innovation Centre
Cardiff University www.ecommerce.ac.uk
The e-commerce integrator: courses too premature
Mike O'Hagan, chief operating officer of Big Blue Steel Tiger, an e-commerce integrator/design company
O'Hagan is just completing a part-time MBA at Reading University. "I haven't been offered any special e-commerce technical modules on my course. The general thinking is that e-business is just another route to market, so it doesn't warrant its own all-singing all-dancing course."
O'Hagan says it is too early in the day for academia to pass on the wisdom gathered by e-commerce pioneers because they are all too busy making their own mistakes right now. It will be a few more years before all this knowledge can be formally passed on, he believes. "The whole space isn't mature enough yet. The important thing to understand [when studying for a career in e-commerce] is the essential business principles around each different route to market.
"Besides, I don't know anyone who has completed an e-commerce course, in this company or anywhere else, which tells its own story," he concludes.
The business administrator: refocus and retrain
Andy McGovern, an e-business consultant at Unisys
Andy McGovern, studied an MBA in Business Administration (with e-business modules) at Brunel University. "It is becoming increasingly common for universities to ask industry experts into the classroom in order to provide up-to-date and relevant industry knowledge. The MBA course I attended has an e-business element and, coupled with my e-business-focused dissertation, helped me obtain my position at Unisys. It also had a definite effect on my salary.
Prior to joining Unisys I had worked for a large US security consultancy in Asia and I would not have got very far in my interview with Unisys if I hadn't taken the time to retrain and refocus my skills to demonstrate e-business knowledge.
E-commerce courses are essential in order to refocus and retrain. Many e-business courses have to be taught in the classroom as they require tacit exchange of knowledge between pupils and trainers."