Fear, uncertainty and underfunding are the hallmarks of UK plc's approach to making the transition to ebusiness.
Those are the stark conclusions of 257 IT directors from UK companies, surveyed late last year at the IT Directors' Forum (ITDF). The respondents identified the move to ecommerce as the biggest technical challenge facing them. But their comments suggest that many UK firms have yet to grasp the full implications of the e-economy.
For example, despite the priority given to ecommerce, IT directors still rank it below the old Holy Grails of staff retention and integrating IT and business among the major management problems facing them in the next two years. Ecommerce takes third place along with the need to raise awareness of IT at senior management level.
Only 58 per cent of delegates believe that ecommerce will change the way their companies do business, indicating a substantial degree of complacency in the face of the dotcom revolution.
Some 20 pre cent of delegates were using ecommerce to trade with their customers and suppliers, while 40 per cent said they used "ecommerce" - by which they appeared to mean a company website - as an advertising and communication vehicle.
But over a third of companies are uncertain about their strategies, and 12 per cent said they had no ecommerce plans at all.
Delegates concluded that ecommerce business models do not offer anything new. Those who did perceive some transformational impact were still cautious, many believing that their companies at least were not ready for the changes necessitated by ecommerce.
"Most of the ideas around are very difficult to fulfil, unless we can build some systems group-wide that can service each niche, as opposed to each niche trying to devise its own answer," said one delegate. "'The economics are just not working at the moment."
Low level of investment
One reason for this might be the low level of investment in ecommerce strategies. Delegates bemoaned the fact that less than five per cent of total corporate revenues is spent on net-related business, and spoke of a typical annual spend on ecommerce of less than £30,000.
The survey adds weight to the warning issued recently by Gartner Group vice president Peter Sondergaard, who said European businesses vastly underestimated the cost of ecommerce.
"There is still an unnerving tendency to separate IT, ecommerce and business, and as a consequence budgets are clearly being underestimated," he added.
"What they've done is get their nephew to design a website and then not marketed it," says Graham Sadd, chief executive of UK business-to-business ecommerce firm, Infobank.
"Look at Dell and Amazon, and see what they're spending on a website. They're talking anything up to $40 million (£24.4m) a year."
"You have to blame senior management. IT directors only do what they tell them," he added. "It's not a difficult choice: embrace ecommerce, or die. UK management is failing to address the issues."
That's certainly the sentiment expressed by the ITDF delegates, who argue that even when senior management buys in to the idea of ecommerce, their attitude is typically highly reactive. As a result, ecommerce is paid lip service at best. In too many cases, ecommerce is adopted as a last defence against loss of market share, rather than taken on as a potential source of new growth.
Delegates detect panic about the ecommerce movement, and this delays the formation of a coherent strategy. Getting on the bandwagon seems more important for now, while cost cutting is one of the most commonly cited drivers for embarking on an ecommerce initiative.
Jonathan Steele, chief executive of ecommerce research firm The Bathwick Group, is surprised by the attitude of senior management.
"Our own research suggests that over the past nine months, senior management has taken on board the importance of ebusiness," he says. "It's definitely making its way onto more corporate agendas. But it can't be left as a technology issue, it has to be a business issue."
Steele hopes that if the poll were to be repeated next year, the conclusions would be more positive. But for the moment, findings give the unfortunate impression that UK plc is far from ready to make the transition to UK.com.
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