You'll have heard all about the transformative power of e-business, but at what point does it genuinely radicalise your organisation rather than just cut costs or increase productivity, fine achievements though they are? There a number of factors, but a customer focus might be a good place to start. Again there are degrees of change here - you can probably best think of customer focus as a journey your business needs to undertake every day of its life - but the example of Sun Bank, the UK banking arm of Sun Life of Canada, illustrates what e-business makes possible.
"Sun Bank realised several years ago the need for a customer-focused approach to its business," says Chris Cummings, the bank's marketing director, the man with ultimate responsibility for e-business development. "Now we have a technology platform that enables us to react quickly, with all our systems integrated. This means we can develop applications very quickly to fit into our integrated banking system. Now we can track everything through the whole customer contact process, from sending out an information pack right through to checking a customer's history with us when they call in."
This much might be seen as good rather than groundbreaking, but Sun Bank's embrace of e-business didn't stop there. It also developed the means to quickly launch alternative channels to market, increasing its competitive advantage. "If the demand's there, we can launch a new financial product in an afternoon through all channels," explains Cummings. On one level, this is the power of the browser, allowing products to be updated centrally with the customer barely conscious of any changes. But change beneath means the enterprise must be able to move with agility. That's the real success of Sun Bank.
Greater agility is also what the car industry is getting from e-business. A number of manufacturers are now striving for the 'six-day car'. Even a couple of years ago, it would have been inconceivable for a production process as complex as automobile manufacturing to supply cars to customers in this short timeframe. But e-business has brought the industry to the point where there's enough real-time information in the supply chain to offer better service without increasing costs.
The first steps are demonstrated by the "Build Your Own" section of BMW's online Virtual Center where users can customise any BMW model to their exact specifications. Jim McDowell, vice president of marketing for BMW of North America, believes BMW's production pipeline will eventually be linked directly to the Virtual Center.
"This would offer the ultimate choice to visitors," he explains. "Consider, for example, a customer who ordered a blue 740iL sports package with heated seats. We can build that exact car for them in six weeks. But they could also consider a car already aboard the next boat that is everything they want except for the colour but is at their BMW centre today. This is the level of detail we want to add to the Virtual Center."
The transformation of internal systems and processes lies at the heart of the move to the new economy. Indeed, some companies have gone so far that processes have usurped the organisation in its entirety because they no longer handle products at all. The emergence of the so-called virtual organisation is illustrated by Watford Electronics, a former warehouse-based operation that now holds no stock at all. Watford's Website allows customers to build their own PC online, adding or removing components according to budgetary constraints. The clever bit is that individual designs are automatically transmitted down the supply chain for assembly and shipment.
"We had our first Website in 1997," says Nazir Jessa, managing director of Watford Electronics. "But the site is now flexible enough to really meet the Internet's opportunities." The proof of the pudding is in the eating: each month, the company is generating £500,000 in revenue, attracting 38,000 new customers and scoring 6 million hits.
The ability to launch new services is another feature of e-business transformation. An example from the public sector is the development of online conveyancing by HM Land Registry. A Website links the potentially dozens of parties involved in the buying and selling of properties, so that from the same screen the boundaries of a property can be checked. The aim is to slash the three agonising months it can take solicitors to search out these details - no mean feat when it involves getting 14 government departments to work together.
Entering new markets is perhaps the greatest e-business opportunity. Charles Schwab is no new name in e-business, but its innovation keeps it at the top of the new economy league. Last month, it launched a self-invested personal pension product. This is not only new to Charles Schwab but pretty new to the UK market as well.
"Research from our existing customers alone shows that investors who are comfortable making their own investment decisions want to extend this control to cover their pension arrangements, particularly if we remove the high barriers to entry," says Will Kinsman, director of new product development at Charles Schwab. Customer-oriented commercial innovation enabled by the integrative power of the Web - that's e-business.