To lead or be led by rivals?
The received wisdom among my peers seems to be that the lead for e-commerce needs to come from the business. Unfortunately, so far no such lead has been forthcoming in my organisation! I know that I'll end up carrying the can, to a greater or lesser extent, if our competitors use IT to steal a march on us. What can I do, short of taking an "I told you so" approach when the damage is done?
Promote e-commerce awareness
If the business is unaware of the implications of e-commerce you cannot expect the board to be forthcoming in formulating and backing an e-commerce strategy. To address this, senior management needs to be made aware of the implications of e-commerce, both on the business environment and the company. In particular the technical aspects of e-commerce should be avoided: it is important that the board views e-commerce as a significant business issue rather than a technical issue.
Involving a third party may help convince the board, as it will be seen to give a more objective view. There are a number of options here, such as suggesting board directors attend e-commerce business seminars, educating them through weekly updates as to what your competitors and the market are doing and forwarding business-focused articles of interest.
Ultimately, the business needs to be able to appreciate the impact e-commerce will have on the organisation. External facing departments, such as procurement, marketing and sales, are generally a good starting point to get the business to appreciate the significance of e-commerce; as they can generally appreciate the benefits more easily because of the nature of their functions. It is important to remember, however, that for any e-commerce initiative to be successful, full support and drive has to come from the senior management team.
Senior lecturer in information systems, Cranfield
Introduce a dialogue
This question fills me with a sense of d‚ja vu. Remember when IS/IT strategies were the flavour of the month? Then conventional wisdom was that you had to drive the IS/IT part from the business strategy, which should be undertaken first. Recent research has found that the best approach to strategy is to intertwine the IS/IT and business strategies into one process.
Hence the lesson for your e-commerce issue is clearly that there needs to be a dialogue (and ultimately a process) between the business and IT on strategy. E-commerce would then naturally form part of that dialogue and part of that strategy.
In the absence of such an enlightened business partner the question remains, what can you do? You can, and should, initiate the dialogue with the business. Perhaps this could be done by sketching out some scenarios for the future of your industry that would catch the attention of your business partners.
By being proactive in the business partnership your role can initially be to bring relevant ideas to the table for discussion. Use your insights into the way in which IT might change the basis of competition. Use business vocabulary rather than IT jargon - enlighten rather than confuse.
Shout the message out
While agreeing generally that the lead must come from the business, the wise IT director recognises that a nudge in the right direction is often called for. This is particularly true when the technology concerned is dramatically different and outside the experience of the business managers. The IT director has a strategic responsibility here to track the technology and inform business colleagues when it is time to take action.
Never before has this role been more important than it is today. In almost every sector of industry, business models are being turned upside down by the opportunities of e-business. What is more, the changes are happening faster than we have experienced before. With such a big opportunity comes a correspondingly large threat.
This is not a time to be modest and diffident. Shout the message loud and clear and back it up with reasoned argument. Think through the practicalities for your business and convey them. They will delight in pointing out, with their greater knowledge, the failings of your analysis in their areas. Which is exactly what you want - the start of a dialogue that will save your company.
Take ownership of e-commerce
Stop whining and start acting. Take immediate ownership of your organisation's e-commerce strategy, now. You are the business, as much as any other area within your company, and your CEO and board-level peers will be looking to you for help and guidance - most companies that are struggling with e-commerce are doing so because they do not know what to do.
See your CEO as soon as possible and make a strong case for direct and dynamic action. It is not so much "carrying the can" as flying the flag and this opportunity must be grasped and progressed with an energy and enthusiasm second to none. However, position is not enough, make sure you grasp the leadership skills needed. E-commerce is our big opportunity to ensure IT is seen as a positive contributor to business revenue and it is your chance to be seen as a business champion.
Learn the language, then inform
The majority of UK e-business projects are still being led by IT executives, although this is not ideal. You can make a start by taking the debate to the board in language it will respond to: talk about business strategy, risk management, and flexibility of response to competitors. Endorse the use of the services market to resource a fast-track e-business project and create relationships with major suppliers - ensure they see you as a channel and an effective source of business opportunity.
Use the implications of what the business wants to achieve to take a lead in information management strategy and make the business accept it as your legitimate territory. Your value addition will be in proposing pieces of an e-business jigsaw that contribute to a coherent whole.
Your best chance of leading your chief executive and board into an e-business transformation is by understanding their business objectives. You must invest the time and effort required to keep abreast of the changing technology and its innovative deployment. Go over to the US to see the state of the art and take along an influential business colleague. Find yourself an e-business group and use it - there are many such groups in the UK to suit all levels of seniority and technical bias.
Above all, know enough to be able to intervene when the risk factor gets too high - whether that is from doing too much or from not doing enough.