Across the desk of anybody writing about management these days pours a torrent of books about running an e-business. Most start off by saying that everything is different — and then talk as though everything was much the same. It is true that the Internet changes the skills required from managers, but not fundamentally so. Anyone who is a good manager can also become a good e-manager.
However, some qualities have become even more important than they used to be. Here, for any manager too busy wrestling with the Internet economy to plough through the literature, are the top ten things you need.
1. Speed. The list could, perhaps, stop right here. Being quick is more important than being large — indeed, large companies find it hard to be speedy. “There are very few things that the Internet slows down,” reflects the MIT Media Lab’s Mr Schrage. “Companies that take three or four months to reach a decision find that others have redesigned their websites in that time.” Production cycles grow shorter; consumers expect service around the clock; companies do things in parallel that they would once have done sequentially. One way to be speedy is to avoid big-bang decisions. Internet-based technology can help. At Oracle, Gary Roberts, head of global information technologies, points out that Internet applications tend to be smaller than yesterday’s proprietary systems, and the software is faster to develop. But speed is also a matter of a company’s decision-making processes. Bureaucracy is a killer.
2. Good people. Human beings are the most important of all corporate inputs. Companies need fewer but better people: “celebrity teams,” as Novell’s Mr Schmidt puts it. Employees with new talents, skills and attitudes must be made to feel at home. Completely new jobs have sprung up in the past three years: content manager, information architect, chief e-business officer, chief knowledge officer. Companies need new ways to hire and — trickier — retain these people. They also need new ways to measure their performance.
3. Openness. The open nature of the Internet drives its success. The economic rewards that come from belonging to a large network will ensure that the new standards that emerge will remain open. In addition, as the Paris-based OECD pointed out in “The Economic and Social Impact of Electronic Commerce”, a prescient study published last year, “Openness has emerged as a strategy.” Many e-businesses allow their partners, suppliers or consumers an extraordinary degree of access to their databases and inner workings. To allow another business inside the corporate machine in this way requires trust, and a willingness to expose your weaknesses and mistakes to the world.
4. Collaboration skills. The Internet creates many new opportunities for teams and companies to work together. Only as companies learn new ways for their own people to collaborate do they begin fully to realise the opportunities to work with customers, suppliers and partners. Teams may be separated by time zone or by geographic distance, or they may work for different employers: the spread of outsourcing means that companies manage many more alliances. That calls for a different approach from that required to manage competition.
5. Discipline. Can that go with creativity and openness? It has to: “The Internet is all about discipline, protocols and standard processes,” insists UTC’s Mr Brittan. When a software program replaces human action, the garbage-in-garbage-out principle applies. Unless companies carefully specify the parameters of a procurement order, for example, it makes no sense to invite tenders in an electronic marketplace. Companies need to insist on a standard look and feel for their websites to avoid confusing customers; and they need to insist on common practices within the company on such issues as purchasing to reap real productivity gains from the Internet.
6. Good communications. Given the pace and complexity of change, communicating strategy to staff matters more than ever. Few grasp the Internet’s breadth of impact. Communications can no longer be confined within the company, or even within the country. What a company thinks of as external information can turn into the internal sort, and vice versa.
7. Content-management skills. All those websites that companies design to reach their staff, their customers or their corporate partners almost always start off by carrying far too much information. Companies are not used to being content providers, and the people who know most about the subject on the site frequently do not, or cannot, manage the site. IBM’s Mr Martinez recalls asking the manager of one of his company’s intranet sites who its audience was, and what they needed to know. “We took 80% of the information off the site, use rose 3,000%, and the cost of running it fell dramatically.” Many corporate managers are simply not used to expressing themselves clearly and concisely.
8. Customer focus. New opportunities have opened for companies to deepen their relations with customers. The emphasis has shifted from recruitment to retention, from the commodity to the service and from the mass market to the personalised. Companies are concentrating less on product and process management and more on the customer, treating each as an individual and trying to provide him with precisely the product he wants. This shift, made possible by enriched communications, is altering the whole shape of many companies. On the organisation charts that managers love to draw, the long shapes of product-related “silos” are now criss-crossed with a matrix of lines of functional responsibility. An executive in charge of retail banking or light trucks, for example, might also be in charge of monitoring fulfilment across the business.
9. Knowledge management. The communications revolution has raised the importance of pooling the skills and knowledge of a workforce. The development of sophisticated databases and intranets makes it possible for companies to build a core of knowledge that they can draw upon across the globe. But this is not easy. Managing workers of this kind requires a new sensitivity. Getting intelligent people to share what is in their heads takes more than mere money or clever software — although both can help.
10. Leadership by example. Plenty of bosses, especially in Europe and Asia, do not know how to use the Internet, and wear their ignorance as a badge of honour. But chief executives who have never done their own e-mail, or bought something online, or spent an evening or two looking at their competitors’ web sites, are endangering their businesses. “Top-level management must spend real political capital to create an e-business,” insists Forrester’s Mr Colony. That is unlikely to happen if they have no first-hand experience of what the transformation is all about.
Armed with these ten essentials, old-economy managers should see the challenge ahead for what it is: the most revolutionary period they have ever experienced in corporate life. It will be frightening and exhausting, but it will also be enormously exciting. It may even be fun.
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