E-commerce tops IT agenda

A survey of delegates at the IT Directors' Forum revealed e-business is a key concern, even though relatively few are trading...

A survey of delegates at the IT Directors' Forum revealed e-business is a key concern, even though relatively few are trading online. Hazel Ward reports

The changes brought about by e-commerce will dominate IT directors' attitudes towards technical and management challenges for the next couple of years, a survey has revealed.

The survey, a snapshot of attitudes towards change held by 300 delegates at the IT Directors' Forum 2000 in June, sought to highlight the key management and technical issues facing companies over the next two years. Invariably, concerns were focused on the challenges thrown up by the shift towards electronic business.

But when asked what stage companies had reached with regard to e-commerce, only 29% of companies said they were using the Internet for trading.

However, 45% of the respondents said they were actively using the Internet for advertising and communication.

Another 32% of companies indicated their e-commerce strategy was under development and was expected to be operational within the year, while 3% said they had no current plans to implement an e-commerce strategy.

Industry experts showed little surprise at the relatively low number of companies doing business online. They pointed out that businesses were reluctant to begin trading because of concerns about security.

Security

Survey results showed that while e-commerce was considered to be the most important technical issue to be addressed over the next two years, security was the next priority.

David Roberts, executive director of tif, the Technical Infrastructure Forum, said many companies are already trading electronically but are using electronic data interchange rather than the Internet.

"Quite a lot of electronic trade is going on already - it's just not on the Internet," he said. "A lot of people seem to be using the Internet for advertising but use of the Internet for trade is minimal because of the underlying commercial issues and security fears."

While many companies spared no expense to demonstrate their "involvement in e-business", one industry observer suggested that the majority were merely "jumping on the Internet bandwagon" and doing little more than advertising.

"Many companies have a Web site just because everybody else does and because they think it's important to have a Web site address on their letterhead. They aren't doing much - they're just carrying the usual slogans and advertising," he said.

Overblown issue

Trevor Ambrose, systems manager at mail order company Laser, argued that, for many companies, e-commerce was very much an overblown issue. "Everyone is rushing to be part of the gang, to be seen trading on the Net. But most businesses are reluctant to trade on the Web full-stop because of security and fulfilment issues," he said

Ambrose said fulfilment issues are absolutely critical. "In terms of fulfilment, a lot of companies have lead times of up to one week for a product you can buy on the high street - which is absolutely useless," he said.

When asked about the most important management issues facing business, respondents said the advent of e-commerce was forcing the evolution of a new business model that was throwing up new challenges.

Topping the list of concerns was staff recruitment and retention, with some 32% of respondents indicating it as the most serious concern.

No less significant were the closely-linked issues of managing change and culture change - voted a major concern by 14.4% and 8.7% of respondents respectively.

Skills shortage

According to Brinley Platts, managing director of The Impact Programme, which represents CIOs throughout Europe, the fact that staff recruitment and retention was the top concern was related to the skills shortage brought on by e-business.

"There's a whole issue of skill development surrounding the new economy and the real changes that IT directors are concerned about are being fuelled by the e-commerce revolution. Change is taking place quite quickly and is forcing the skills shortage," he said.

The skills shortage is likely to get worse, Brinley warned. "I don't think we've seen anything yet - there is a lot of evidence to suggest it is going to get worse.

"Organisations are not going to be able to cope unless they take fairly drastic steps to cope with the new economy. The people who can make a difference, including IT directors, are going to be immensely valuable."

David Grimshaw, senior lecturer in information systems at Cranfield School of Management, said managing change is a significant concern, as e-commerce radically alters established working practices.

"The effect that e-commerce has on whole companies represents a huge shift in working practices. It is changing the boundaries within organisations," he said.

"IT directors are obviously in the frame a lot more than before and they have to have a greater knowledge of business and management issues," he added.

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