The question of what really lies behind ebusiness elicits a different answer every time, depending on who you ask.
Security experts are convinced that their field is the cornerstone of the whole thing. After all, without security ebusiness flounders in a morass of litigation, fraudulent dealings and deeply unhappy customers.
Telcos know it all comes down to the wide are network service, because if customers get slow downloads they click off elsewhere.
Cisco and other networking vendors swear it's the end-to-end network infrastructure. ISPs will tell you that effective hosting services are the key and hardware vendors such as IBM, Hewlett Packard and Compaq believe firmly that it's all in the scalability of the platform you choose.
Talk to consultants, however, and they will tell you that the key to ebusiness success lies in your strategic vision, your grasp of customer relationship management techniques (including web traffic analysis and click stream data mining), and in how well you handle logistics and distribution.
This last point, of course, is all about how tight an integration you've managed to achieve between the company's core back-office enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and the web e-front on the one hand, and key suppliers on the other.
There is a good case for the argument that what ebusiness is actually about comes down to putting the infrastructure in place, to make 'the consultant's eye view' of ebusiness a reality.
Andy Thomson, director of mid-market consulting at PricewaterhouseCoopers points out that, without such an infrastructure, a company will find it harder and harder to meet its customers' delivery expectations, as the volume of orders grows. Unless you can fulfil your promises you are going to do your brand more and more damage.
Stand and deliver
Reputations can be killed on the internet faster than businesses would believe possible. Failing to meet the increasingly exacting expectations of online shoppers is a very good way of destroying a company's e-credibility, Thomson notes.
In fact, many believe boom times are ahead for the new breed of enterprise application integration players as both successful dotcom outfits and e-enabled bricks and mortar companies look for tighter data flows between their e-services and their entire fulfilment process, including partners.
Traditional ERP vendors, such as SAP, PeopleSoft, Oracle and JD Edwards, are also expected to experience a resurgence, as they reinvent themselves as e-services companies, while still focusing on their core 'total integration' strengths. The appeal to corporates of the integration message, Thomson believes, will just get stronger as the e-revolution matures.
Anita Hockin, Websphere and ecommerce brand manager at IBM, makes a very plausible case for the importance of what she calls "a standardised platform" - for which you may read IBM Websphere.
Her argument, too, begins from the idea that to run a real ecommerce or ebusiness site ('real' meaning one that trades in upwards of tens of millions of dollars), the integration of everything with everything else rapidly becomes the key to success.
"Ebusiness, whether it is consumer or business-facing, has so many facets. To deal with this complexity you need an infrastructure that is as open as possible, based on industry standards, where all the systems and applications can exchange data," she argues.
Tools of the trade
From the hardware supplier's standpoint, ebusiness comes down to building scalable, start-small-but-grow-as-big-as-you-please hardware engines. On top of that comes all the software, web building tools, payment systems and transcoding engines to take HTML out to a wide range of devices.
Gluing all this together, of course, is fundamental - and is also excellent business. Not surprisingly, hardware suppliers are expanding their professional services arms as fast as they can, in order to grab as large a share as possible of the ebusiness boom.
IBM has a special interest in this side of things, since it has a substantial investment in middleware technology with its MQ-Series. In fact, if pushed, IBM'ers tend to fall back on middleware as their definition of what ebusiness is really all about. "Middleware is the operating system of the internet," Hockin says.
Network infrastructure providers such as Lucent and Nortel have recently developed professional services arms, with the aim of capturing ebusiness integration revenues from the other direction. Instead of working from the box down to the network infrastructure, they start at the wire and work upwards.
Steve Morton, marketing director at Lucent Network Professional Services (NPS), has a slightly different spin on the essentials of ebusiness. For him, the planning effort carried out by a professional team that has been there and done it many times, is what "really" makes the difference.
"What we find, almost without exception, is that companies are pressed to deliver the first live transactions over their new ebusiness platform within about 90 days. From day one there is immense pressure to get the whole project, end to end, with all the systems and infrastructure, in place at fantastic speed. This is where the organisation concerned needs to know where the 'gotchas' are, so they can be safely worked through," he says.
Lucent likes to push its Network Engagement Methodology - a project management system presented in question and answer format - as one approach to this.
"The aim is to bring planning and design to ebusiness so that the infrastructure that's rolled out meets the user organisation's ebusiness requirements," Morton adds. The next step is to extend this throughout the entire lifecycle of an ebusiness project.
Because of this, Lucent's consultants tend not to sound like networking engineers. Instead their approach is similar to that of Andersen Consulting or Cap Gemini.
Morton points out that: "One of the key things about ebusiness is that it has to be a formal part of the organisation's overall business strategy." This means advising the client company on change control, business process re-engineering for their ebusiness channel, and so on.
"In our view, around 20 per cent of ebusiness is the network, 30 per cent pertains to security and the remaining 50 per cent is purely business-related," he adds.
For Ian Manton, business development manager at the ebusiness architecture and solutions company Candle, companies must bear in mind at all times the most obvious fact of all: ebusiness is there to make money for the site owner.
"If you keep this in mind: security drops down the pecking order as an issue. You can have the most secure site in the world, but if no one visits it, the thing is a failure," he says. For him, the key to ebusiness is fulfilment, pure and simple.
"What you are trying to achieve at the outset is to grow a customer base and to ensure that your site has a sticky quality so that people will want to come back. But whatever you do, you have to be able to meet whatever promises and expectations you are creating - and that means tight back-office/front-office integration," he says.
Beyond this theme, Manton puts website traffic and performance analysis as his next most critical factor. The design and launch of a new business-to-business or business-to-consumer website is just around a third of what needs to be done to create a successful site, he claims.
"The improvements you make after you launch are what really drive success - and you can't make those improvements if you are flying blind and not carrying out proper analyses," he argues.
Feedback is the key
Candle uses short Java-based applets of around 8K seeded in the website pages. They download unnoticed to the end-user's site and feed back performance data. For example, this could be download time per page, per graphical object, per product search and so on.
At the same time, mouse-click tracking software maps where users go and whether they visit the pages the host company wants them to look at. All of this feeds back to the site design modification process.
The importance of this view is highlighted by the huge sums of money being spent on click stream data repositories, data warehouses, data mining tools and additional storage resources.
Scott McBain, country manager for Scotland at change management specialists FI Group, believes that established bricks and mortar companies are choosing one of two possible routes to e-enable themselves. They are either doing a full blown integration exercise, or they are hiving off parts of themselves, with a branding activity layered on top, to run as a greenfield dotcom operation.
"Obviously the hive-off gives you much more chance to leverage new technology, and you can be much more radical in your approach. This maps well with some of the radical new market approaches opened up by ebusiness," he says.
In both cases, however, McBain argues that companies will find that the real key to what they are doing is customer relationship management.
"Everything about ebusiness comes down to the relationship you are trying to foster with the end customer. Back-end fulfilment from some great warehouse is part of the story, but so is knowing as much as you can about each particular customer and individual spending habits. Without this information, ebusiness won't fly," he says.
Gilbert Tobbin, ebusiness practice leader for Deloitte Consulting in Europe, argues that ebusiness is really about three things, and everything else is incidental.
These are reducing transaction costs and getting an edge on the opposition; eliminating some processes altogether and changing the rules of the business game; and extending the boundaries of the enterprise to leverage the network factor.
By this last point he means the current emerging practice of valuing a network by the square of the number of nodes connecting to it. Put more simply, the more business partners a network connects, the more powerful it becomes as a driver of business change and new business opportunity. At this level, infrastructure questions are definitely secondary to tactical and strategic partnering issues.
Ebusiness means forgetting bilateral relations and forging multi-partner deals. How you wire the new partners together is a plumbing issue.
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