E-commerce: getting it right first time

Companies looking to explore virgin e-commerce territory will have greater success if they forge a healthy relationship with the...

Companies looking to explore virgin e-commerce territory will have greater success if they forge a healthy relationship with the marketing department, writes Julia Vowler

IT directors are now focusing their minds firmly on their real priority for the new millennium - electronic commerce.

But, as IT heads into the new century it brings with it the baggage of the old - and one of the heaviest burdens is the problem of misalignment between IT and the business. For e-commerce, the challenge is to get the alignment right while it is still a greenfield site.

But if e-commerce is new territory for IT, it is important for the IT department to realise that it is the same for the business. For once, the business is as much a novice as IT is, if not more so. For the marketing department, which is the likely department to assume ownership of e-commerce, the way forward into e-commerce is not lit by a clear, shining light.

"They feel it's all coming at them too quickly," says Nev-ille Homes, a consultant on e-commerce with the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

It isn't a question of IT going to marketing and saying, "tell us what you want from e-commerce and we'll dish it out". The marketing department is on a steep e-commerce learning curve.

Marketing departments, says Holmes, are still getting to grips with the impact that e-commerce will have on them. For a good many, he says, e-commerce means having a Web site which, warns Holmes, "is perceived as a kind of electronic brochure that's nothing more than the print version".

Marketing departments have yet to take on board that e-commerce requires a complete overhaul of the business model in respect of such fundamentals as cost of sales, access to customers and global competitiveness. They have to understand, he urges, "that e-commerce will mean rethinking the business processes".

This could prove problematic as in many organisations the business processes have never been clearly understood, let alone rethought. Yet marketing departments have to appreciate that with e-commerce, everything changes and customer service is one typical aspect. Anyone already selling over the Web knows that issues of order fulfilment to Internet customers, whose expectation is that the delivery will be as swift as the ordering, are critical to success.

"There's a new big picture, and business has to understand not only what that is, but that there is one at all, says Holmes.

"The full implications of e-commerce have not been thought through," he adds.

This is not, of course, because marketeers are stupid. It is partly because everyone is feeling their way on e-commerce and partly because marketing departments are busy with the day job. Every IT department which spends 90% of its time firefighting knows the feeling.

"Daily pressures mean they don't attend to the big picture," says Holmes.

So, given the scenario in which the marketing department, the immediate client for IT's e-commerce deliverables, is both enthusiastic, confused, ignorant and anxious what help and advice can IT give that marketing will welcome?

What marketing will not welcome, warns Holmes, is IT being too prescriptive about what needs to be done in e-commerce, even though the reality is that, at this stage, IT probably does know better than marketing. Rather than hammering on marketing's door shouting "Make way for e-commerce", IT will need to adopt a more constructively proactive role in building e-commerce bridgeheads into marketing.

Of course, the welcome that a proselytising IT department receives from marketing will depend hugely on the relations between IT and business. The better and closer these are, the more likely that IT can take an early role in the e-commerce business transformation. "IT must demonstrate its credentials for understanding the business," reminds Holmes.

So, until IT gets the call from the marketing department, what should it do? Two things at least. One is to have an ongoing, even if informal, programme of awareness about the business impact of e-commerce ranging across the organisation, from finance to logistics, and especially top management.

The other is to fast track IT's own learning curve on e-commerce, not only by way of what new business models e-commerce makes possible, but what IT implications adoption will have. How fast can e-commerce be delivered, in systems terms, and at what cost?

Holmes is not the only person to warn that making the business wait 18 months for an e-commerce capability is not acceptable. Three months is likely to be the time frame demanded.

Whatever happens, even if the marketing department's e-commerce strategy seems pretty limited at the moment, that will change. When the call to IT comes, "don't say we've done nothing because we haven't been given a budget," warns Holmes.

Given the imminent criticality of getting the right e-commerce strategy in place at the right time, that's a recipe for a P45.

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