Margaret Smith, e-business director of Legal & General thinks she knows the secret of how the insurance giant got ahead of the field in electronic business-to-business. The company is already driving to get stakeholder pensions off the ground, and make them available via the Web. Smith, who took up the reins as e-business chief at Legal & General two years ago, identifies the bridge between marketing and IT as the crucial factor which has made it possible for the insurance giant to become an e-market leader.
Legal & General thinks getting IT and marketing teams to work together is the key success factor - and that conviction predates the Web economy. Teams previously worked together for direct sales campaigns too. And Smith's multi-discipline perspective on e-management is shaped by her personal experience - she is one of that rare breed that moved from IT into general management at a very high level.
In the majority of bricks-and-mortar companies, IT and marketing operations run like separate fiefdoms. Imparting to everyone the importance of project management was an important step in moving away from that model, according to Smith. "Traditional marketing people, because they were creative, were not particularly disciplined. They did not do things like project management particularly well, and the discipline of project management and writing lists is generally not their forte." Legal & General decided that anybody in the business who wanted to sponsor a project had to go on a project management course.
Smith describes one of the success stories resulting from this policy: "One of the guys who came to work for me was great at his marketing role, and was great with his PC. He had a awful lot of talent on the IT side too and was doing things such as scanning before anyone else." He was sent away to work with someone from the project management side for a month and charged with designing the marketing life cycle in the same way as the existing development/IT life cycle. According to Smith, the staffer grumbled and groaned "for about two weeks. Then returned to suggest, 'You should see this. We could make a fortune selling this to agencies.'"
Legal & General quickly learned that direct marketing and IT went hand-in-hand. Those lessons are even more relevant to e-business.
With direct marketing, if IT and marketing were slightly out of synch, things were still just about manageable. The Internet means the two operations must fit hand in glove, says Smith. "Now, when you have a call centre waiting, you cannot afford an advert to go out at the wrong time, or with the wrong phone number, or even with the wrong product. You've got to train people up in the call centre, at exactly the right time for knowing what the product is, and also have a sufficient number of people in - so it's actually quite a balancing act."
For the last couple of years, Legal & General has had to learn Internet marketing the way it learned direct marketing - on the hoof. "Customer expectations have changed quite dramatically," says Smith. "Two years ago, the customer would have quite happily waited 24 hours for a response from the Internet. Now, it's two or three hours, max. The processes have to be slicker now, and you can no longer use smoke and mirrors to make it look like you're all Internet-based, with a whole lot of people running around in the background to sort things out.
"We said two years ago that we would not allow our URL on any advertising material until someone could prove to me that the processes, including IT, were there, and were robust enough to be able to meet customer expectations."
Legal & General has been fortunate in that among its staff, many "got" the Web early, and from both sides of the marketing-IT divide.
Smith says, "We've got some of the guys in our IT department who really kicked into the Web early. They are not your traditional 20-25 year olds, but are in their late forties. One of the things they do, which you would never have found an IT person doing before, is to send me details of things they have seen on the Web. They go all over the Web looking for marketing opportunities, and different ways of doing things. What they're not saying, is 'Here's this wonderful piece of technology. What can you do with it?'"
Bridge-building is not an easy exercise however and Smith suggests there has to be a recognition of what everyone can bring to the party. "I think that companies where there is a mentality of 'That's IT, they're over there - this is the business' won't actually work. Here, we involve IT.
"John Wells, one of those in IT who surfs the Net, is invited to our strategy sessions, and he is there not just to input from the IT side, but also from whatever angle. He is a fully paid-up member of the group when he is with the strategy team. He's thinking holistically, he's not thinking, 'Which Wap technology can we use here?'"
Fortunately, there are techniques and methods that can help to gel cultures and create cohesive teams. "Sitting together as teams is probably the most important of all. I've learned that if a group sits together, by osmosis they actually pick up some of each other's skills. Paul Nunn, who manages all our Web content, is a marketing person."
Other suggestions include conducting a Belbin analysis - psychological analysis - to ensure that the team has the right people in it. According to this management model, a team would require different personality types to function effectively. So, typically "plants" - those with all the ideas would sit alongside "shapers" - who want to direct the way things go, "team workers" - who like to pull teams together; and "co-ordinators" - who can direct the whole endeavour.
Getting IT and marketing to understand each other's role is also vital. Having fine-tuned IT to support business needs, marketing has to understand IT's role. That is where IT needs to help itself," suggests Smith. "The marketing people don't necessarily need to know about Java beans, but they do need to understand the processes that have got to be gone through, and the complexity of something. But the IT people can't just do what they're told to do. They have to tell marketing the consequences of what they are being asked to do, and not just do it.
"When I was running IT, I believed our job was to say 'Yes, we can do it but you do know it's going to cost this much to maintain in the long run,' or 'If you took that small part of it out, it reduces the cost by 95%'. It isn't just someone coming to the counter saying, 'A pound of butter, please,' and giving it to them."
Above all Smith believes that it is important that IT and marketing sit down and "barter" their way to what they both want. "The IT people must really, really challenge. But to be able to have an intelligent dialogue, they've got to understand the business.
What they have to do is to be able to say, "Well, I can do that for you, and it is going to be that much, and this is what is going to be in the future, and that is what the overhead is going to be. Can we talk through each bit, because I can tell you that bit there is really, really complex. Is there a different way of doing it?"
By design - and perhaps the odd accident in having the right people prepared to work together - Smith has enabled people in her team to try out different hats and learn from each other's skills and perspectives.
This model built the foundation for successful e-business at Legal & General.
Margaret Smith's strategy for joined-up thinking in e-business:
Margaret Smith advocates using Belbin analysis to help form integrated teams for e-business. Belbin is just one of many organisational and psychometric methods for forming and analysing teams. How does your e-business team shape up - and where do the marketing and IT functions fit in? Below we list the Belbin types and brief descriptions. To take the full test, download this PDF courtesy of the University of Northumbria's school of engineering website. http://soe.unn.ac.uk/Physics/sup/belbin.pdf