IT Attraction

I looked at the cover stories of three leading business magazines -- namely Forbes, Fortune and BusinessWeek -- for the past three months. Of the two dozen covers I viewed, a third of them highlighted the same subject, one way or another. That subject is e-commerce, however defined.

I don’t know whether you read these publications or not. You may be too busy doing your job. I can assure you, though, that the CIOs are reading these and so are their bosses -- the CEO, president, CFO and COO.

In addition to informing the captains of industry about the phenomena we call e-commerce, these articles are doing something far more influential to your operations. These articles are scaring the hell out senior management.

Yes, these cover stories feature the success of companies that have embraced e-commerce and discovered how to do it right. But the more compelling theme is that any company that doesn’t follow suit is toast -- regardless of the industry or market it’s in, or how established its market position is.

What really scares senior management the most -- and please don’t take this the wrong way -- is that they now have to rely on the IT department more than ever. It’s no longer a lot of talk about the importance of information systems, talk to which many senior managers have traditionally paid nothing more than lip service.

It’s different now. After all, the message is coming from the business bibles: Forbes, Fortune and BusinessWeek, among others. Innovate -- which means to develop an e-commerce strategy -- or die. There is but one weapon in the arsenal: IT. And IT is not machines and code and networks, it’s people: It’s you.

This is a double-edged sword if there ever was one. The good news is that when given the orders to save the ship by building the intranets and extranets that will comprise the company’s e-commerce solution, IT will shine as it never has before.

The fate of your organization will be determined by your skills and efforts. If you don’t believe me, ask the owners of companies like Borders, the bookseller. Failing to respond with an e-commerce offering of its own, it has been buried twice: first by Amazon.com and then by the e-commerce efforts of Barnes and Noble.

The e-commerce trend encompasses more than books, of course. Within five years, there will hardly be a car dealership in existence, at least the way they present themselves today with acres of inventory searching for buyers. Thirty dollar books and $30,000 cars will be sold the same way, without all the brick and mortar expense of the middleman.

So that’s the good news; the opportunity for IT. The other edge of the sword is senior management’s ignorance of and impatience with all the back-office stuff that comprises a highly functional e-commerce site, the kind that keeps customers coming back for more.

To this point, I think IT has not been fully hit by the fear and paranoia that senior management feels regarding the need to aggressively move into the e-commerce era. You’ve been insulated to some extent by the overarching phenomenon called Y2K, which used to command the covers of leading business magazines.

Now, however, we are starting to read more Y2K stories that indicate the problem is largely licked, thanks to a Herculean and costly effort. You can fend off senior management’s zeal to move on to other chores, such as e-commerce, for a few more months. You can express the need for further Y2K compliance testing, but not for much longer.

The pump is being primed for the biggest new application development push ever. Want to know what’s really scary? The bosses believe they can fairly judge the e-commerce efforts of your company to that of your competitors by pointing and clicking through different Web sites. Like I said, ignorance and impatience will drive senior management, and senior management will drive you.

The irony is you know better. Probably half the stories on the front pages of trade publications are e-commerce related, but those stories usually tell it like it is: E-commerce, as it turns out, isn’t the same bowl of cherries you read about in the business books. --Bill Laberis is president of Bill Laberis Associates Inc. (Holliston, Mass.) and former editor-in-chief of Computerworld. Contact him at bill@laberis.com.