E-commerce outpaces strategy

David Bicknell E-business E-business is moving so fast that firms may need a new business plan every three months, and...

David Bicknell E-business E-business is moving so fast that firms may need a new business plan every three months, and traditional companies must adopt innovative new methods to keep up

Talk to some of the prime players helping companies to develop their e-commerce strategies, and a disturbing picture emerges: firms are just not moving quickly enough.

One of these interactive players, Agency.com, is currently working with British Airways to help it achieve 50% of its revenues through online systems by 2003.

Agency.com, which competes with traditional management consultancies and dotcom rivals such as Viant and Razorfish in offering e-commerce advice, believes too many traditional companies are wasting time making presentations to their boards about the Internet, and what they should do about it.

"The larger companies' biggest problem is speed - they are too slow," says Andy Hobsbawm, Agency.com's chief creative officer. "These days even due diligence for major mergers takes no more than a week, and often it's just done on gut instinct."

Hobsbawm warns that companies launching a dotcom strategy should have another one up their sleeve, ready to be adopted in a couple of months time, because that is the speed at which the Web operates. "Everything is in real time. Your business is your customer's experience," he says.

This is one of the reasons behind a recent shakeout among online retail and services firms, which has led to a number of job losses.

Beyond.com changed from a business-to-consumer e-commerce organisation to a business-to-business site almost overnight on the back of "a feeling on Wall Street".

You have to rip up your business plan every three months. You have to be fast and flexible, and have your antenna out all the time. To do that you need to keep hold of your best staff, perhaps by operating like an e-business and creating an entrepreneurial culture within it. That is how Agency.com, battling it out at the forefront of the dotcom revolution, has to think.

There are a host of dotcom companies all competing for the best staff, and if Agency.com is not a "great place to work", they will go somewhere else. That might mean creating a multi-disciplinary team where IT and creative Web staff join forces. In Agency.com's case, it might mean sending some of its people to a new project just to be able to "try out some cool stuff".

Meanwhile, at General Electric - one of the world's largest companies and one of the first giants to try and turn itself into an electronic-commerce-aware company - trying out such "cool stuff" is just what's going on. And it is the "out-of-touch" middle managers who are doing it.

GE has turned to mentoring to enable 50-something executives who have never used the Web to not only become mouse-friendly, but also sufficiently Web-aware, that they can make business decisions about it.

The mentoring project is led from the front by chairman and chief executive Jack Welch - who at 63 has a 37 year old mentor, whose usual job is to run the GE.com Web site. Welch ordered the company's top 600 managers to "reach down the ranks" and find some Net devotees who could hand-hold them around the Web. He aims to inject more youth across the company as GE strives to adopt the Internet to cut costs and launch new businesses.

GE executives regularly meet with their mentors for Web lessons, where they critique their own and competitors' Web sites, throw questions at them, and hand over their homework.

Another GE executive has admitted that technology is almost taking over the rest of the business. According to the Wall St Journal, Denis Nayden, president and chief executive of GE Capital, the company's finance arm, admits there are not enough hours in the day to do his day job and e-business.

He reports, "It's like you're in the middle of the ocean and the waves keep coming. I could spend my entire day dealing with e-business. But I have a day job too."

David Bicknell

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