We're at the end of the year – a year when some pundits predicted that the IT world would suffer a great cataclysm because of Y2K problems. The cataclysm turned out to be a tiny ripple. So much for the pundits. (Does that include me? I hope not.) Anyway, I was thinking the other night that in my final column of Y2K, I would make some predictions about what the next big thing to hit the IT world would be. I don't know about the next big thing, but I do see some trends on the horizon.

First, "inter-enterprise" is going to become a really important word in the IT vocabulary. Second, enterprise application integration (EAI) – especially the lack thereof – will separate the wheat from the chaff in e-business organizations; and third, Web sites with pizzazz simply won't be enough to woo customers – you'll need substance behind that form as users become more savvy.

OK, show of hands, how many of you IT managers out there know what inter-enterprise management is? Inter-enterprise management is the process of creating dynamic, integrated relationships between you and your channel partners by developing common business processes and sharing supply- chain information. This type of supply chain management allows your organization to become more efficient, produce more revenue, manage cash-flow better and manage inventory along the channel continuum – all delighting your customers with superior service.

Whew! That's a mouthful. What it really means is that you and your channel partners get together and form a cooperative venture to move from the world of haphazard electronic data interchange to managed e-business collaboration. It's using the Web as a vehicle for integrating your business with your partners' businesses, thereby functioning as a community rather than a chain.

With inter-enterprise management, there won't be a supply chain where links can get broken; instead, there will be a collaborative community where partners help each other, through the use of shared information, to improve the end-customer experience. Companies that get on the inter-enterprise bandwagon now, and make the Web a central part of the inter-enterprise strategy, will have an edge in the coming years.

Next question: How integrated are your corporate IT applications? Do you have a real EAI initiative or a bunch of wires and in-house patches to connect your legacy systems, operational data stores, data warehouse and Web server, etc.? I know I talk about this subject quite a bit, but it's only because it's so critical. You can't afford to have disparate systems, platforms, data marts and servers functioning in a vacuum. But, you can't just buy an off-the-shelf software package, install it and get a quick fix either.

EAI is a strategy as well as a set of tools. It is a philosophy of developing and implementing business processes that are customer focused. Further, it is picking a suite of tools with good technology – application switch, XML, etc. – and a good systems integration partner to implement the strategy. If you don't have an EAI strategy, you will eventually fall behind in the race to get and keep customers. If you do have one, make it a New Year's resolution to evaluate it. Either way, a good EAI strategy is something you soon won't be able to do without.

You can't do without customers either. Did you ever consider what it's like to be your customer shopping on your Web site? I'm sure your site is really great to look at, but does it have a brain behind that pretty face? Is it easy to navigate? Is it logically laid out? Is the walk-through process from search to buy painless? Is the engine behind the site large and powerful enough to meet volume demand? If you examine your Web site through the eyes of your customer and can't answer yes to all these questions – especially if you get frustrated using it – your site needs help.

Remember, whether you're an e-tailer or click and mortar, your Web site may be the only view your customer has of you. With the inter-enterprise management and EAI initiatives you're soon to be undertaking, wouldn't it be prudent to examine something as simple as your Web site to ensure that it – the mouth of the bottle – is not the biggest bottleneck? I'm not suggesting that you totally redo your site, just that you consider this area as one part of developing an overall customer-centric focus. With literally thousands of e- tailers coming online each year, competition will soon drive out those whose Web sites aren't the best.

All right, off the soapbox, Jane. Seriously though, new technology is expanding at a blinding pace. To keep up with the competition, you don't need to buy every new toy that comes out; but you do need to keep current on the leading-edge (not bleeding-edge) technology because having a solid, current IT infrastructure will help you compete successfully. However, re-member that tools aren't everything. Communication is – and that's what this column and Y2K1 will be about. Those who succeed will be those who are best able to get everyone – from channel partners, to in-house IT staff, to the customer – on the same page.

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