Life as an e-business pioneer

Behind the hype, many UK firms are struggling with the e-business basics. David Bicknell reports on E-Business Review's research...

Behind the hype, many UK firms are struggling with the e-business basics. David Bicknell reports on E-Business Review's research into corporate Britain's online plans

Much of what is going on within the e-business agendas of British firms cannot be explained by graphs, flow diagrams or pie charts.

For this reason, at the end of last year, E-Business Review commissioned some qualitative research into the attitudes and experiences of managers working on Internet-based business projects.

With the help of Actionline Research, we set up a series of in-depth face-to-face and telephone interviews with more than forty managers at small, medium and large companies in the finance, manufacturing, retail and distribution, transport and logistics and public sectors. Together with the quantative research we published in our December issue, they provide a valuable insight into Britain's progress in the New Economy.

Who is responsible from E-business strategy?

During the research, over a dozen different job titles were given by managers working on e-business projects. They ranged from the obvious 'e-commerce director' and 'project leader for e-business' to business development director, marketing director, website manager and IT manager.

The research also found that there is a degree of team involvement in devising a strategy, and that the key individual responsible for co-ordinating the team may not be the most senior participant. So, in some companies, there is an e-business project leader at middle-management-level responsible for bringing together directors and senior managers across both commercial and technical functions. One member said, "There are only five of us in our project team, but we have pulled in other people as and when throughout the process. I represent the IT side; three of the group have come from marketing, with the sales and marketing director and the project director. We've had our product manager involved, our marketing manager, operations director and our credit manager from finance."

The research also examined the role of the IT department in delivering an effective e-business strategy that meets business needs. For example, whether the IT department is proactive or reactive depends on the relationship with others in the organisation.

Typical of the approach is this comment: "I'm the IT manager and I'm the one who will be ready if we decide to go ahead - it will be somebody from marketing who will get things going".

How are you using E-business?

The research also received a number of responses to questions about what they see as the aims of their e-commerce or e-business strategy. Many were keen to stress that their e-business strategy was not so much for getting new customers, but more a case of communicating with existing ones.

Those companies who are strongly customer-driven will necessarily see one of their major rationales of their e-business strategy making things easier for the customer. For others, perhaps those in the early stages of Web development, the website will only be a 'presence' or a 'brochure' on the Web, and that does not necessarily mean that offering interactive services is going to follow quickly.

For other companies, their e-business development took off because they realised that their competition has beaten them to the punch. One IT manager within a traditional components business suggested that he had been trying to convince his managing director about e-business for some time, but never got anywhere.

"He was a little reluctant, because he didn't think there was anything in it in our industry, because it's an old fashioned business. But what kicked him into life was when one of our competitors launched a site. Then it was, "Oh we'd better do something then".

Those organisations that are not customer-focused are instead using e-business to streamline their activities, save time and cut costs and create benefits to the organisation.

How has e-business affected your organisation?

In most organisations tackling e-business, there is support from the very top of the company, with boards involved right from the start, discussing strategy, giving approval for go-ahead and setting timescales. In some organisations, those responsible for e-business had encouragement - but no clean slate - to make a success of e-business.

In some cases, top executives went even further. One board did a tour of Europe, addressing every employee about the change taking place and the impact it would have on them.

To help get their strategies off the ground, a number of companies had contacted external consultancies to advise on strategy development. But it was not necessarily the case that the bigger fish gave the best advice. Some decided smaller was better.

Looking at companies' relationships with their key customers, the trend is likely in future to be based on building closer electronic links with a small selection of key clients. For some companies, email has opened the door for this.

"We will become closer to our customers. The whole strategy will be to tie customers in to us so they don't even think of going anywhere else. It will be a partnership arrangement."

E-business Concerns

Whatever their progress, most are suffering from the same issues. These include:

  • importance of sorting out back office functions before opening their operations up via the Web

  • the need for integration with internal systems, such as accounting

  • compatibility with legacy systems

  • building up internal expertise

  • skills shortage

  • fitting strategy with current market conditions, and other corporate priorities.

    For many organisations, what they really need is the right information to help them. Too many are being bombarded by information from suppliers on a daily basis, when what they say they need are details of what others are doing, warts and all. Too many success stories only make them feel nervous.

    The sheer number of 'solutions' put forward also causes concern. Having staff responsible for e-business who may have come from marketing rather than a technical focus has not helped.

    One attended a conference attended an 'e-tailing conference' to gain knowledge. But was dismayed to find that he was unable to cope with the technology.

    Another moaned, "There's a mind blowing plethora of suppliers out there. I've been struggling over the past few weeks to try and get some kind of objective value judgement between three companies. But they are all coming at it from slightly different ways. It's a challenge to get them to some sort of starting line where I can compare apples and apples."

    Perhaps not surprisingly, few respondents were confident enough to suggest they were at the forefront of their sectors. Even among those organisations that seem to be more advanced than others, there remains a degree of uncertainty.

    One company representative summed up the mood. "I'm a bit schizoid about it. Some days I think nobody else knows more about this than I do, and others, I think they know more than me. I think the bottom line is that we're not way behind, and we're not way in front either. There are a lot of people groping about in the fog, and I'm probably one of them."

    Wish list: e-commerce aims

  • To facilitate the customer
  • To provide product information
  • To act as a shop window
  • To serve as a marketing tool
  • To be seen to have a website
  • To streamline, save time, cut costs

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