Opinion

Any truth in the sooth I say?

Last year's dotcom rationalisation made a laughing stock of e-commerce, but the way we do business is changing. Mark Lewis makes a few predictions for the year ahead

And so a new year dawns, bringing with it the customary flood of half-cocked predictions from the media. This is a fine time of year to be an IT columnist. How can you possibly fail? If, by year's end, your January soothsaying proves accurate, you can give yourself a big, public pat on the back. And if it doesn't - well, how could anyone seriously have expected you to second-guess the whims of the Web, anyway?

Not all of the wordage adopts the future tense. This is also the season of the annual review, when clever journalists scoff at the gaffes, boobs and cock-ups the year has yielded. Hindsight is a marvellous thing, but never more so than when you have column inches, or air time, to fill.

Just ask Angus Deayton. As is now customary, he cast his withering eye over the year, during the holiday period. Amid the inevitable jibes about David Beckham's predilection for wearing thongs, and Judy Finnegan's inability to keep her dress closed, much fun was had at the expense of the bug that failed to bite - and, by implication, of the IT departments that harped on about it for so long.

To see a laudable project subjected to such ridicule was depressing. The fact that Y2K never proved to be a substantial threat, was not despite IT departments' efforts, but because of them.

The field of e-business is suffering a similar image crisis at the moment - which is equally depressing. The year 2000 marked an inflection point in the tale of the Web. Overnight, something that had been universally hailed as a profound advance in the progress of mankind, was reduced to a laughing stock.

At a thousand dinner parties, the chattering classes mourned their dying tech stocks. And in a thousand articles pundits poured scorn on the dotcoms' risible attempts to turn a profit. Such adverse publicity couldn't help but dent public trust in the Internet.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that the world seems unable to see beyond the e-business subset of e-tailing. For many, the Internet has become "the thing that never delivered my books and CDs in time for Christmas". Like puppies, though, e-business is not just for Christmas.

Many organisations are guilty of posting up an online catalogue and thinking themselves e-enabled. This has to be the year when they thoroughly evaluate the Internet, and consolidate their response to it. Sure, the Net represents an exciting new sales channel, but that's only a tiny part of the story. The challenge now is to tap its potential in a way that is most appropriate to your organisation.

B2B e-business is, of course, experiencing its own peaks and troughs of hype and criticism at the moment. But have no doubt: cutting the costs of transactions and commodities, creating new business models, facilitating data flow and many other delights await any organisation prepared to question the ways they are currently doing business.

Decisions will need to be made. With your purchasing hat on, you'll need to ponder which e-marketplace, if any, you are going to buy into, and to introduce e-procurement systems around the enterprise.

With your supplier hat on, you'll need to react to the squeeze on your profit margins that the price-only selling model of e-marketplaces has created, by offering online solutions bundled in with your products. Whichever hat you don, you will need to embrace a new culture of collaboration with customers, suppliers - and even direct competitors.

To summarise, here are a few predictions. In the year 2001, gym memberships will rise in January and fall again in February. The sun will continue to shine, occasionally. The Pope will remain a Catholic. And, if you are brave enough to reassess your supply chain relationships in the light of the B2B revolution, your organisation will benefit and your own stock will rise. See if I'm not right.

  • mark.lewis@rbi.co.uk

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    This was first published in January 2001

     

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