To win in the digital economy you need an excellent brand and high-quality products.
This is the first doctrine in the e-catechism of Lou Celi, the New York-based managing director of The Economist's Electronic Intelligence Unit (EIU).
"The internet changes everything," he said. "It's not just a question of how you deliver information, or change editorial content creation. It goes into the very guts of what you do as a business - sales marketing, everything."
The EIU, which is described by Celi as the "business-to-business" arm of the Economist Group, now generates "between 30 per cent and 40 per cent" of its $70m revenues from electronic publishing. It has been producing country reports from "our man in Havana (or Helsinki or Harare)" for five decades.
But on 1 May, the organisation launched ebusinessforum.com which it claims is a "revolutionary web-based briefing service for senior corporate executives intent on transforming their companies into ebusinesses".
Ebusinessforum.com is the first free online service to be offered by the EIU and is staffed by a team of six editors, although it also draws on the editorial resources of the Economist Group as a whole. "The advantages of repackaging information fast to meet new needs is enormous on the internet", said Celi.
The site provides users with a league table of what it describes as "ebusiness-readiness rankings". Out of the 60 countries that were assessed, the UK is in a respectable sixth position ahead of its largest European Union partners comprising of Germany (13th), France (14th) and Italy. The US is the world's most ebusiness-ready country, however, closely followed by Scandinavia. Iraq came bottom of the list.
Giving away Economist content
"If the information on the site were to be priced, it might be charged at up to $20,000 per year," said Celi. "The doing ebusiness guides are valuable because they provide all the business, tax, legal and connectivity conditions and regulations affecting ebusiness in a particular country. We'd typically charge between a few hundred and a thousand dollars for each of these alone."
Instead, funding comes from the site's sponsors which include Bain, Cap Gemini, Cisco Systems, Concert, Dell, Deutsche Bank, DHL, Intel, KPMG and Oracle.
But Celi said that delivering the service in this fashion illustrates the EIU's willingness to adopt the "launch and learn" mode he deems necessary to drive ebusiness.
He revealed that the organisation is also thinking about adopting the Hoover business model, which is based on charging customers a modest subscription fee but generating further revenues from advertising and sponsorship. Subscribers could become members of ebusinessforum.com's executive club for an extra charge.
"No industry has been affected by the internet more than the information industry," Celi claimed. "It goes to the heart of what we do for a living."
But he describes the current events in business history as fraught with danger. "You can reinvent your entire business and come out stronger, or you can see your business marginalised if you get it wrong. The companies that will really do well are those with established brand names, content that cannot be found elsewhere and a sensible business model," he said.
He and colleague Daniel Franklin, the EIU's editorial director, are confident that ebusinessforum.com is rich in quality content and what Celi calls "brandwidth". As a result, they believe they can afford to experiment with the organisation's business model. "We've changed more in the last five years than in the past 55," said Franklin. "This is a defining moment for us."
Dotcommery without the tears
Celi also maintains that the EIU has a "dotcom culture but with the safety net of an established brand".
"We used to be the epitome of managing for efficiency. Our goal used to be to make 10 more dollars on a country report, and we've changed that to managing for change," he said. This has led to a simplification of the organisation's internal structure by cutting 17 divisions down to four over three years.
But Franklin admitted that "a lot of pain" has been caused by transforming the EIU's business model from one that delivers print-on-paper reports to one that espouses an increasingly electronic model - something that has been backed, above all, by Celi.
The organisation closed two divisions - automotive and healthcare - and has stepped up the general internal tempo. "The traditional heartbeat of the EIU had been quarterly," said Franklin, but a more urgent pace is now being forced through.
He maintained that the "opportunity to become e-editors" has provided new career development prospects to former Economist Group print editors, who are now working more as part of a cross-functional team than in the past.
But Celi stressed that much can be done to take the pain out of introducing transformation processes such as those pushed through at the EIU. "Air cover from the CEO [chief executive] and bringing everyone along for the ride" are vital, he claimed. (The redoubtable Marjorie Scardino was the chief executive in question at the Group). "It also helped that all the revenue from our operations, regardless of the media, went back to the product groups", he added.
With regard to external processes, Celi said: "The digital age is about alliances, and the old forms of organisation are giving way to a whole new way of competing. We've been involved in co-opetition in the information industry since the early 1980s, delivering EIU content through Dialog and Lexis-Nexis."
"It won't be long before electronic [commerce] overtakes the rest of the EIU's business," he concluded. "You can sum up our strategy in one letter - 'e'."
Which may be true, but the fact remains that the valuable content at the heart of ebusinessforum.com was mostly researched and written for the print-on-paper operations of The Economist Group. And such is the length of much of it that 'control-p' is, perhaps, the way to get a grip on it.
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