Guest column: Will the dot.coms rule?

Reading the papers these days, it often seems like everyone already works for a dot.com company, or is foolish not to. But, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Most of us work for businesses that existed long before the internet became a household word. Thus, especially for IT professionals, the operative question is whether you should jump ship as fast as possible or stick with your current job and hope your company thrives in an increasingly internet-based world. The conventional wisdom is that many existing pre-Web companies won't make a successful transition.

IT industry people tend to assume that the pure-play dot.com companies will continue to move faster and more ably than companies that have their roots in the physical world, and therefore they will typically prevail. I'm not saying they won't, but it's still worth understanding why so many of us hold this view so strongly.

A degree of scepticism is especially healthy since, in the IT industry, the track record of the conventional wisdom is actually pretty poor.

Anyone who lived through the early years of the PC business remembers that most informed observers believed that no matter how quick and clever Apple, Compaq, Microsoft and other newcomers were, established giants such as IBM, Digital and Wang would eventually control the business PC market. That's why so many of the initial PC IPOs were viewed more sceptically than today's internet launches.

Having erred once on the side of caution, the market has now lurched in the other direction, generally believing that no matter what a Merrill Lynch or a Barnes & Noble may do, they will never keep pace with a Schwab or an Amazon. Consequently, every new dot.com start-up is treated like a potential industry titan, capable of overthrowing the pre-internet order.

But if history teaches us anything, it's that the conventional wisdom is not reliable. Perhaps that is why so much of this particular debate reminds me of that old saw about the generals refighting the last war. For example, if the conventional wisdom is as wrong now as it was with PCs, we will soon discover that the pure-play internet model is inherently weaker than a hybrid physical/cyber approach and that it is the pre-internet companies that will typically prevail. This is pretty much what has happened in the biotechnology business where many start-ups have fizzled, while the existing drug and agricultural companies have gone on to successfully exploit biotech know-how.

In the end, the general consensus is often wrong, not because people are stupid, but because events themselves are determined by what a few key individuals actually do and therefore are inherently unpredictable. Four years ago, Microsoft could have sat back and charged $US100 for a copy of Internet Explorer and watched Netscape continue to dominate the market, just as Compaq could have decided that it needed to go direct. But one company acted aggressively (if perhaps illegally), while the other buried its head in the sand. There was nothing inevitable about any of it.

For most workers, the question isn't whether dot.com companies are great and pre-dot.com companies doomed, but rather how well your particular organisation is dealing with change and whether you believe in your company's strategy and leadership.

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