E-world is round, not flat

e-business A small but perfectly formed group of e-business pioneers look set to be at the forefront of the Internet age, and...

e-business A small but perfectly formed group of e-business pioneers look set to be at the forefront of the Internet age, and those who still predict doom and gloom risk being left behind

A ccording to one of the UK's most influential and successful electronic commerce visionaries there is an elite group of e-business directors in the UK who really "get it".

Unsurprisingly, their companies look set to be in the vanguard of those that take advantage of the opportunities offered by the Internet age.

Michael de Kare-Silver at Great Universal Stores is the latest in a group of executives that also includes Pat Gaffey at British Airways, Margaret Smith at Legal & General, and Colum Joyce at DHL. They have picked up enough experience along the way, whether in consultancy or as chief information officers, to be able to see where the road is headed, and to coax, cajole and muscle their companies along it.

Their emergence demonstrates the way e-business has evolved and how the "e" roles have changed. In the early days of electronic commerce there was an e-commerce manager responsible for setting up an e-commerce focus within organisations - but with little real power. There was then a move to e-commerce directors, who probably came from the business side - perhaps marketing - and in some cases came from IT. These roles may be heading a specific unit, and be answerable to the board. And they have considerably more clout.

There is another level at some companies where the e-role has evolved almost to become an e-czar, which encompasses oversight of strategic e-investments. The bigger the company, the bigger the role.

For example, publishing giant Bertelsmann recently appointed a 39-year-old executive, Andreas Schmidt, to head up an e-commerce group that will have five operating divisions: Internet e-commerce; mobile e-commerce; broadband e-commerce; strategic alliances with ISPs; and a venture capital fund that will focus on start-ups. It will have annual sales of $500m and 1,500 employees.

These individuals and their companies represent a leading-edge elite. They have embraced the Internet age, they understand what customer service is all about, and their companies are more likely to be successful.

But for every information elite, there is also an information underclass. De Kare-Silver this week remarked that he was amazed at the number of doomsayers, at a recent presentation in the City, who said they still believed Net-based commerce was a fad and that the decline in Internet stocks only served to prove their point.

These people probably still believe the Earth is flat. I've got news for them - it is not.

But if you don't embrace where this is heading, your companies really could, metaphorically speaking, fall off the edge.

Leading companies, such as Tesco, which began trialling its Net-based shopping service while others laughed, are reaping the rewards now.

De Kare-Silver cites the example of Toyota in Japan. In a "skunkworks" project two or three years ago, it put some used cars up on the Net on behalf of its dealers. Toyota found that these cars sold more quickly than others that were pitched elsewhere.

Now its Web site, Gazoo.com, is one of the largest Web portals in Japan, and people can get everything from brake linings through to CDs.

For those that remain sceptical, I would suggest a walk to the edge of the electronic world to see if you fall off. You might discover the e-world really is round after all.

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