Treat IT as a merger
The main problems of integrating a Web business with existing business operations stem from the fact that Web businesses are often set up as autonomous units. There are good reasons for this - being able to cut the Web business away from traditional constraints, whilst nourishing its growth with ample resources has enabled the bricks-and-mortar companies to catch up with the dotcoms.
However, to be successful over the long term, integration of the Web business into the main business needs to be considered more as a merger, and less as a corporate restructure. This means that the integration needs to consider responsibilities, cultural implications, systems and processes.
Regarding responsibilities, it is essential that there is universal sponsorship at Board level for the integration initiative, otherwise at senior management level, the perceived reward for making it work may be limited. If management acts as two companies, trying to protect separate interests, the odds are that the customer will see two companies.
When it comes to cultural implications, there may well be friction between the two businesses. If the e-business is set up to live according to new economy values, expecting these to gel with existing company values may be optimistic. Even where the values don't generate issues, if the traditional company is not helped to understand the role of the Web business, fear of the new approach is a likely outcome. Both of these issues will generate inconsistent messages (and service) to the customer.
Systems development of Web businesses inevitably takes place at a different pace to that which will have occurred in the rest of the business. Over and above this, the "greenfield" nature of Web businesses can lead to inadequate integration with the legacy systems that drive offline operations, if this is not given enough importance in the planning process. However, the fact is, few bricks-and-mortar organisations have managed to achieve a consolidated view of everything about a customer in one central database, and fewer still are able to use this comprehensive understanding to interact with the customer. The integration of online and offline activities makes this a considerable issue, and inevitably means, from a customer's point of view, having to repeatedly provide information at every point of contact that is not used in subsequent interactions.
In all, the key is to recognise the extent of the changes that are required, ensure that there is a sufficiently senior sponsor on-board who is willing to take a relatively active role in fighting the customer's corner - and not a particular business division's corner - and then address the integration as a significant change program.
Follow the best examples
Cranfield School of Management
There is no doubt about it, integration is a key theme in the creation of a successful e-business. There are some good examples - Gap springs to mind - where a customer can visit a store and if the item is not in stock it will be delivered free of charge by ordering online. The first step is to set the strategic vision of customer satisfaction and aim to individualise the customer experience. In terms of information systems this means integrating your front end and back end systems. Although not a big fan of rules and checklists the following Web site does have some good advice: http://www.success-at-e-business.com
Be consistent with customers
The most important thing here is to stop thinking about "two sides of business".
You are extending the reach of your company onto the Web. That means the information you currently use to run your business - customer information, product information, pricing information, accounts, inventory and so on will need to be extended to reach out to this new channel. If you don't do this, you will have two channels that are blissfully unaware of each other's existence.
Since your customers are likely to live in both the offline and online world, the consequences of this will be that they see an organisation that can't give them a consistent story. They will find they have to tell you who they are once again when they go online, that they will be told they can't bring products back to offline outlets that they have bought online and will see prices that are different when they go online and that don't take into account their specially negotiated terms. Not a very rewarding experience for them, and the sort of problems that are likely to make your account handling people very unhappy.
So, in order to make your business work in all channels, you need to throw away the idea that you have various systems supporting your business and instead think of them as a collection of service-based components. An application server is a key technology here that will help you wrap your existing investment in systems in a way that means they can be re-used and support your online offering. So this means that there may be a big integration job with your existing systems to be done, but the consequences of not doing this will be to disenfranchise your customers and stress the account handling part of your organisation.