It's Olympics time again. Soon we'll soon be treated to the familiar sight of our brave boys and girls struggling to keep up with another squad of US super-beings. But playing catch-up with the US is not restricted to the sporting field.
Europe is now lagging 12 months behind the US in ebusiness - and will not catch up for at least five years. So says a study by analyst Gartner Group, publicised at Internet and Electronic Business Europe 2000 in Paris last month.
"European companies don't exhibit the same enthusiasm for changing their business model [to exploit the internet] as those in the US," says Alexander Drobik, vice president of ebusiness at Gartner.
Just how far behind is Europe? There are now several benchmarks to highlight our progress relative to the US.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has suggested that the number of secure websites found in a country is the best way to measure the development of internet economies. On this basis, the US's lead is clear to see. A survey this year  by market researcher Netcraft shows that Europe has fewer than 8,000 secure websites, compared with 34,000 in the US.
Or let's take the use of online services. According to Gartner, 56 per cent of adults in the US use online services, compared with 30 per cent in the UK, 20 per cent in Germany and only 15 per cent in France. In financial terms, the pattern is similar. How about transactions per head? The value of ecommerce transactions in the US is approaching $250 per person, compared with $100 per person in the UK, says Gartner. In Germany, transactions are worth two-thirds of that figure, and in France less than half.
There's anecdotal evidence from suppliers, too. Ebusiness software provider CommerceOne claims that $400 billion worth of business is traded through global industry exchanges using its MarketSite application. The company estimates that only $140 billion of this is generated in Europe, with more than $230 billion of it originating in the US.
A call to net-liberation
Gartner believes that European companies must 'net-liberate' themselves by changing their business models to make the most of the ecommerce opportunity, it says.
"Net-liberating is not an investment in technology; it's an investment in change management. Ebusiness is an operational process issue," says Drobik.
European enterprises are too focused on tactical applications, such as eprocurement, Gartner believes, when the key IT focus should be the so-called electronic marketplaces, an area in which the US is ahead.
Marketplaces offer a fresh spin on the traditional idea of a supply chain by allowing companies to come together online in communities to buy and sell inventory, rather than simply using the internet as a way of cutting purchasing costs. Marketplaces will clock up $2.7 trillion worth of B2B sales in 2004, Gartner forecasts.
The Charles Schwab experience
Exploiting the internet requires serious organisational and cultural change, not just new front ends. US brokerage firm Charles Schwab, which merged its internet and conventional businesses, is a case in point.
Wall Street was initially unimpressed, and the company's stock dropped from $41 to $28 overnight, following the merger of online and offline.
A year later, the firm had one million new customers and was lauded as a visionary company. Having taken 20 years to accumulate its first $100 billion of customer investments, Charles Schwab's most recent $100 billion came in six months - thanks to the internet.
"The lesson we have learned is that the internet has to be embedded in your business model, it's more than just adding a '.com' to your name," says Bob Duste, Charles Schwab's European chief executive.
Duste's early experiences in the UK demonstrate, rather depressingly, the differences in attitude between the US and Europe. "When we bought a UK brokerage firm, its people raised lots of barriers to using the web," he says. "They talked about high phone costs and low PC penetration. We showed them that if you provide a compelling reason to get onto the net, then people will do it." Charles Schwab now takes 75 per cent of its UK business through its website.
Even the European Union is worried. Recognising the importance of the ebusiness revolution to maintaining European competitiveness, the European Commission (EC) launched its eEurope initiative in December last year  to accelerate the uptake of digital technologies across the continent.
"The European legislative environment has held back B2B development," says Jeffrey Baumgartner, an EC expert on ebusiness. "The member countries are still squabbling over issues such as VAT harmonisation.
"However, dealing with these differences has made European companies better at internationalising their business. This experience will give us an advantage against the US."
Online book retailer bol.com, part of German media group Bertelsmann, illustrates this point, Baumgartner believes. "We believe that bol.com will catch the market leader, Amazon.com, next year," says Bertelsmann board member Klaus Eierhoff. "We will achieve this by internationalising more quickly.
"Bol.com will soon be available in 13 country and language versions, including Chinese. Amazon cannot currently match that."
While Baumgartner's theories may be sound, he could perhaps have picked a better example. Bol.com recently had to cancel its planned flotation because of what it referred to as "unfavourable market conditions".
Leading from the front is the key to success
During the next two years, the first B2B failures will emerge, Gartner predicts, and the fallout in the overcrowded dotcom market will intensify.
Europe's response will be critical. "In Europe people don't like failure," says Drobik. "The attitude in the US is different. Risk is part of the culture.
"European managers are less inclined to lead; they want others to go first."
We can't afford to let such conservative attitudes slow our ecommerce development. Leading from the front is the only tactic that will win this race, it seems.
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