In a speech widely quoted in business and mainstream publications, including USA Today, Andy Grove, then the CEO of Intel, offered that, "... as much as we talk about Internet companies today, in five years' time, there won't be any Internet companies. All companies will be Internet companies or they will be dead."
Interpretation of any quote out of context is always dangerous, but I’d like to share my thoughts on how the Internet is affecting business today. A hundred years, ago serious businessmen they were all men back then thought the telephone wouldn’t have a place in business. After all, how could you conduct business without a written record, a telegram or a letter? Telephony has changed the face of business forever. No sane person today would establish a customer service department and then decree that customers be required to write or telegraph their requests. You wouldn’t tell your sales department that all sales calls had to be in person. The point is, companies that leverage new technology usually have a competitive edge but, in short order, all companies adapt the technology or perish.
If you’re still not convinced that technology is critical, all you need to do is look at the changes to the companies comprising the Dow Jones average to grasp what engine is driving business it’s clearly the technology engine.
There are a lot of people that believe as I do, in that Mr. Grove was correct. The challenge we face now is learning how to integrate Internet technology into our existing businesses. Few of us have the benefit or luxury of starting a dot-com enterprise from scratch. Most of us have the legacy millstone of existing business, customers and distribution channels, not to mention the bricks and mortar Wall Street is now calling a disadvantage. We have to deal with the realities of the IT and business infrastructure that we’ve built during the last 30 years.
By definition, infrastructure is evolutionary, not revolutionary. Information technology infrastructure has been evolving for years and has been responding to and, hopefully, driving your business. Changes are usually based on the best technology and standards of the day. New business requirements drive the need for new standards. The Web is a perfect example. Clearly the Web couldn’t have become so pervasive without standards like HTML, TCP/IP, Java and ODBC.
If the future is e-business, but we have an existing IT infrastructure that isn’t quite ready for the Web, we need to figure out how to transition to new models and new standards without disrupting our current business.
Conceptually, there are only a few solutions to this dilemma. First, you can hire an army of programmers to rebuild the programs within your current infrastructure to make them work with new e-commerce standards. There are many consulting companies that would be more than happy to work on a time and materials basis for such a project. The problem is, you’re left with a new legacy system that doesn’t have the flexibility or adaptability to accommodate new business and technology challenges. A few years from now, you may find that you’ve just hard coded yourself into a different corner.
A second approach, one touted by most of the big database vendors, is that you need to spend millions of dollars on new hardware and databases to replicate what you have into an entirely new, e-business-ready infrastructure. This is certainly a solution, but one that carries the risks of improper design, implementation and conversion nightmares and, quite often, substantial business disruption. In short, you may be investing in administration and maintenance issues that will continue to bedevil your efforts to join the Internet business world.
A third option is to use tools to build a middleware layer that is transparent to e-business standards and transparent to your legacy infrastructure. Middleware tools can build the bridge to connect what you have with what you want. A tool solution can be up and running in e-time, which is measured in hours, not in monthly calendar pages. Tools are relatively inexpensive and usually don’t require special skills. The major drawback to tools is the perception that they are a stop-gap measure. The fact is, tools have evolved radically during the past few years, much like Web browsers. The earliest versions were slow with limited functionality. Enough to whet your appetite, but far from satisfying. Today, tools offer outstanding features and great performance. When business conditions change, you may only need to upgrade the middleware, not your whole environment. Thus, tools are often the fastest, most effective route to an e-business model.
So, if the choice we have is to get e-business enabled or face extinction, I’d suggest we consider my mother’s advice: "Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water."’ (I never cease to be amazed at how wise my mother is). Let’s look for the fastest, most effective way to get there a solution that enables our ongoing business to stay up and running, yet doesn’t cripple our ability to rapidly adapt to change.
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