In the 1990s, the computer and business press had a field day with Y2K. The effects of our old two-digit date field were going to end the world as we knew it. Y2K did a lot of things. It sold thousands of generators, flashlights and batteries. It had normally sane people doing very irrational things such as stocking up on dried foods, bottled water and toilet paper. It gave insomniacs something else to talk about on those late-night radio shows besides conspiracy theories surrounding the Middle East and Monica Lewinsky. It forced corporations around the world to spend billions of dollars on COBOL programmers, new hardware, databases and application software.

What Y2K didn’t do is prepare business for the next wave – wave that will have a profound effect on the way we conduct business and will impact our IT organizations. Both the computer and business press have already started the hype. The consulting world is salivating at the potential assignments, and the three-dimensional guru gap – the difference between hype, reality and what you can sell – is larger than any we’ve ever seen before. E-business is here.

I’d like to offer some simple, two-people-at-the-bar-having-a-beer advice on how to approach moving to the e-business world without bankrupting your budgets or trying to turn your company into a dot-com overnight.

There’s a range of e-business applications spanning simple, straightforward tasks, such as checking an order status or an account balance, to very complex tasks, such as linking all suppliers to a manufacturing process. First piece of advice – pick the easy tasks that have the most impact. Of course, everyone wants the perfect solution, but there is usually a big gap between what people want and what would make them happy. I’m recommending a classic case of under-promise and over-deliver. For example, I ran a software company that had 3,000 small business customers. We were inundated with calls to customer support for small orders and status checks on the orders. What we really wanted to do was allow the customers to both place and check their own orders on the Web, but that posed major challenges with our existing ordering system. We went ahead and gave customers just the ability to check order status on the Web. Customers were very pleased with this improvement. They liked being able to quickly check their order status, but were happy to be placing orders with a "live person" that could answer questions about what they were ordering. Call volume dropped and customer satisfaction rose. We had implemented a fast, cheap solution; and, at the same time, we learned a lot about dealing with our customers on the Web. You don’t have to do it all at once. A toe in the water makes it easier to get a foot in the water – and then jump.

Second piece of advice – Web applications are different. You are looking at a new audience and most likely asking your programmers to do new, unfamiliar tasks. Don’t over-complicate. The smaller and more focused the Web application, the faster you can role it out, the easier it is to maintain and the better your chance of success. Using the previous example, there was no way a casual person could have used the order- entry system we had in place. All the business logic we had previously developed for the complex orders customers placed was worthless for this new audience. But, writing a new lookup application going against the order-entry data was straightforward and fast. More importantly, the application could be extended to let the customers place orders fairly simply. We knew the types of orders they were placing. Keep the applications simple, and don’t get trapped into scope creep. Build what you need for today. It’s okay in the fast-moving, e-business world to trash it in 24 to 36 months.

Last piece of advice – leverage the data. The data is the only constant in the e-business world. Presentations have to change and processes will evolve, but data will remain constant. Keep your approach to the data simple. Don’t spend a fortune on hardware and software to copy data and create yet another customer file. Don’t build custom interfaces to translate. Both of those approaches have one thing in common – they are people- and code-intensive operations that will create a maintenance and administrative nightmare. Don’t do it. Use tools that can create a virtual view of your data and give you access to anything you want at transactional speeds. A toolset can have you in the e-business world in weeks – not months or years – for a fraction of the costs of programming and databases.

The old rule still applies – keep it simple. First, stick in a toe. Don’t jump. Under-promise and you’ll deliver more than expected, sooner than expected. Set small milestones and leverage what you’ve got. Your IT staff will be thankful, and your customers will be happy.

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