Behind closed

Our intrepid columnist braves some very chill winds to send this report from his latest posting. Another mince pie, anyone?

Our intrepid columnist braves some very chill winds to send this report from his latest posting. Another mince pie, anyone?

Being away from home is the biggest pain of being an interim manager. Quite simply, you have to go where the work is. But I never thought I'd end up in Lapland.

Sure, I have worked in some colourful places, like Gateshead and Norwich, but this job really takes the biscuit. It started innocently enough with a brief conversation about a very interesting "e-business roll-out". The next thing I know I am on the back of a dog-sled, heading for the North Pole. The things we do to earn a crust.

I suppose I should have realised even Father Christmas couldn't run his business without some serious infrastructure and technology, but it's not the sort of job that you find everyday on the Internet is it?

So here I am, in one of the strangest datacentres I have ever seen, and that's saying something. Most of the IT functions are outsourced to an American company, Elves Dwarves Solutions, so it's been the usual battle for the first few weeks, to understand which jobs are covered by the standard service level agreements and which are genuinely classified as "extras". All of this is water off a duck's back for me, though, as I am used to unpicking outsource contracts that look like a bad rehash of War and Peace.

This is obviously a well established "bricks and mortar" business, albeit most of the buildings are actually igloos, and like many other mature concerns we are struggling to come to terms with the profound mysteries of e-commerce.

I blame Bill
"It doesn't help if your customer is still expecting the full mince-pie and sherry treatment, when we deliver the 'no-frills' dump-it-and-go service."
Colin Beveridge
Gates. Why not? He seems to get blamed for everything else at the moment. Last December, my new boss, Mr Claus, found he had a whole sack-load of stuff in the warehouse, left over after the last delivery run. Most of this was genuine rubbish that nobody would ever want in the first place, such as zillions of monogrammed handkerchiefs and "free internet trial" CDs from well-meaning Aunts. But there was also an unwrapped book, with no gift tag. The only clue was the hand-written dedication inside the book "To Larry, this is how to do it - ever yours, Bill."

Still, if it wasn't for that stray copy of Business@the speed of thought, I wouldn't be sitting here now, trying to sort out the mess. If only the computer industry had as many pragmatists as visionaries. If only.

Well, it seems that Santa took an immediate shine to Bill's book and decided to embrace the Internet revolution for all it is worth.

The first problem he encountered was finding an available domain name - the squatters had already registered most of the intuitively obvious variants, so this was harder than it should have been. Nevertheless, traffic has been steadily building for our site at and we confidently expect to be handling most of our "Dear Father Christmas" mail online by 2005.

Everyone here is very, very excited by this new channel and we just know that our one-stop Christmas gift portal will be a sure-fire winner. Especially as almost all of our staff are working for peanuts because they all have stock options, prior to our planned IPO next year. The venture capitalists are all over this one like a rash. Forget, this one will be really humungous.

Sure we have had some teething problems, you would expect it with any major implementation. Apparently our ERP system wasn't designed for 500 million transactions in a single night. That's the trouble when you go 24/7, no maintenance window you see - in the old days, with the manual system, we could always catch up with the paperwork in January and February. These days it just has to be done in real time.

The last agm was a bit dicey because some of our institutional shareholders have got wind of our e-business problems. It's amazing how many IT projects get clearer focus when the share price starts to be affected. That's where I came in - to make sure that everything is "business as usual" on Christmas Eve. Thanks Santa.

Fair enough, we interim managers do sell ourselves on our trouble-shooting skills so it's time to stop whingeing and to get on with the job - assess the situation and prioritise the "must-do-nows".

Easier said than done when you are trying to decide the relative importance of the GPS Reindeer Guidance System and the Order Entry Chimney Interface.

Now I'm a reasonable man, but I'd really like to get my hands on the salesman who sold the CRM system to Santa. Our marketing guys have been tearing their hair out for the past six months trying to update the customer database.

Apparently the system won't accept "no longer believes" as a valid reason for losing a customer - so we just don't know how to manage the customer process for thousands and thousands of people. It doesn't help if your customer is still expecting the full mince-pie and sherry treatment, when we deliver the "no-frills" dump-it-and-go service.

Unfortunately it's not just the challenge of integrating our legacy and e-systems that's keeping me awake at nights. We could have serious problems with the data protection people because it seems that every time someone sends us an e-mail with their Christmas list, we are exporting personal data outside the EU.

This is a nightmare, as most of this data is unsolicited in the first place. I have tried to explain this to Brussels but they just don't want to understand; the law is the law and it is there to protect the consumer. So if my next report is from Ford Open Prison, you'll know that the EU lawyers have finally found an IT director to jail.

Thankfully, I got here just in time to stop the new Web site going live prematurely. It was supposed to be a "limited" pilot - just a few pages of HTML, nothing behind it, you know the sort of thing. Too true, I know the sort of thing. The me-too dotcom disaster sort of thing.

It's all very well being all gung-ho about e-business but it takes more than a few fancy Web pages to make a business. If traditional retailing is all about location, e-business is all about fulfilment, fulfilment, fulfilment - we ignore this rule at our peril. Yes, it is easy to get "something" up and running on the Web very quickly these days. Yes, it is easy to change things quickly too. But if you haven't got rock-solid fulfilment processes in place, you are going to repent at leisure as your business fails.

So, as Christmas Eve draws closer, my sleep becomes more and more restless. During the long winter nights I have desperately tried to remember the original headhunter's call. I could have sworn he said something about lapdancers, but it must have been Laplanders... Better get my hearing checked before I am dropped in it again.

Happy Christmas everyone and, if you don't get the presents you hoped for, don't blame me. It's all Bill Gates' fault, for writing that damned book. In the meantime, you should call our Customer Service Centre - it's open 48 hours a day, just holler up the nearest chimney.

Are you of good cheer?
Do you feel hearty or is it all humbug? > >Send Colin your Christmas message.

Colin Beveridge is an interim executive who has held top-level roles in IT strategy, development, services and support. His travels along the blue-chip highway have taken him to a clutch of leading corporations, such as Shell, British Petroleum, ICI, DHL and Powergen.

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