Time for the fast followers

Charlie Blackburn explains why traditional firms have to lose their lethargy if they are to make their market muscle count in the...

Charlie Blackburn explains why traditional firms have to lose their lethargy if they are to make their market muscle count in the next phase of the e-revolution

There are only three messages for established companies looking to develop killer e-business. Quite simply, they are: sense, learn and respond. It's a short checklist, but it is proving incredibly difficult for them to do that.

That's not to say it is all over for the big guys - far from it, now is a great time to be joining the race. With the froth blown off some of the start-up companies the market is educated as to the value creation of e-businesses, although maybe a little choosier.

The revenge of the traditional businesses is well underway. They can use their awesome brand recognition, talented leadership teams and balance sheets to crush the weaker of the start-ups. But traditional companies have a lot to learn about legendary Internet strategies.

Already there are many case histories available to prove what does and does not work. E-business lessons are learnt in Internet years (ie over 90 day periods). The first mover start-ups have had their advantage, now their challenge is to keep it. Traditional businesses engaged in fast follower strategies have a real chance to devastate those start ups who's strategy was built in haste.

The key lessons are about innovation. Trying to attack massively established Internet brands or glossing over hierarchical management are strategies unlikely to succeed. The winners will be those who match the scale of their physical presence with a renewed customer focus and a sensitivity to the new brand implications of the Web.

To do this e-businesses, of any size, need to be designed, from the start, to sense, learn and respond to the marketplace in months not years. Skills need to be acquired internally if possible but are more readily available outside the traditional business. Fast followers need to be fast.

Traditional companies that allow their e-businesses the freedom and the "can-do" ruthlessness enjoyed by startups have the chance to become a second wave of winners.

This is why announcing a willingness to invest in an e-business strategy is a really smart idea, precisely because it allows the traditional business a chance to sense, learn and respond to innovation. It is also why using the announcement of a potential e-business, but retaining the existing corporate politics, structures and timelines is insane. You need to sense and learn if you are going to respond.

Charlie Blackburn is vice president of e-business consultancy Scient

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