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WEB RESOURCES

Q&A Central

The more expansive the Internet becomes, the harder it is to zero in on relevant information quickly. Sure, there are sites such as Ask Jeeves that let users pose questions, but answers are only forthcoming if they currently exist on the Internet. What happens if you want to get answers from the real, live people who might know best?

That's where Abuzz Technologies (www.-abuzz.com) comes in. The Boston-based company bills itself as an online knowledge network where people can ask questions, offer answers and swap know-how about everything and anything.

Launched in January, the Abuzz site boasts that 85 per cent of questions asked are successfully answered. That's a pretty good success rate considering the scope of the queries. Recently, questions ranged from the practical ("How accessible is public transportation in the San Francisco area?") to the arcane ("What is the longest word in the English language that contains only one vowel?" Hint: It's got nine letters).

Registration on the site is free, with revenues generated from advertising. Currently, the site has 45,000 members. As part of the registration process, users submit their e-mail address. That way, the process of asking and answering questions is truly interactive, says John Capello, Abuzz's general manager, since relevant material is automatically e-mailed to registrants as it's posted. "Our goal is to create an environment where people can have focused, high-quality exchanges," he says. So if you asked that question about the longest word, for example, you'd receive an e-mail every time someone answered.

Owned by New York Times Digital, the Internet division of The New York Times, Abuzz can be found at The New York Times, Boston.com and NYToday Web sites.

And in case you're curious about the longest, one-vowel word in English, the mysteriously named Count Fathom offered "strengths" as the answer.

HOT TOPIC: SUPPLY CHAIN MANAGEMENT

Let's Get...Vertical?

Business-to-business exchanges have the potential to slash costs out of the supply chain and nobody is more excited about that than venture capitalists. In fact, US-based AMR Research estimates that 600 such exchanges have sprouted up within just a year and a half as VCs look to cash in on the trend. As in any overpopulated space, only the strong will survive, while the weak will eventually be either trampled or eaten. And one of the deciding factors in separating the fit from the faint will be whether buyers, who are supposed to use these exchanges to source new and inexpensive suppliers, decide to go vertical or horizontal. Vertical exchanges, such as CheMatch.com and Commerx's PlasticsNet, operate in a single industry, whereas horizontal exchanges like SupplierMarket.com try to attract a broader spectrum of participants across multiple industries. In SupplierMarket.com's case, the business is simply "parts", whether those parts are of plastic, metal, wood, plaster or some other material.

Vertical markets - or at least the good ones - offer industry expertise as their key selling point. They can build their trading infrastructures and services on the idiosyncratic needs of whichever industry they serve. Horizontal exchanges are unlikely to provide the same depth of expertise, since they handle multiple kinds of materials. That breadth may, however, provide buyers with a countervailing advantage.

"What [buyers] are really trying to do is get efficiency from the exchange and reduce cycle times," says Murali Menon, vice president of engineering for SupplierMarket.com, in Massachusetts. "We're capturing a larger percentage of [what we need on] a typical project," he says of his company's horizontal approach. In other words, not only does a buyer that's building office parks or battleships need steel, but it also needs plastic, glass and other materials, and sourcing all those different products through a horizontal exchange can simplify its purchasing activities.

Some exchanges within each model will likely survive. However, it's worth noting that among AMR Research's list of the 40 strongest exchanges, the vast majority are at least beginning life as verticals.

QUALITY ASSURANCE

Badge of E-Honour

If the Internet is the Wild West of contemporary commerce, then those who monitor the policies, practices and quality assurance of e-business sites are the modern-day sheriffs.

Here's where some of them are getting their badges. Clicksure, the Oxford, England-based publisher of the Clicksure standard for e-commerce and provider of certification services to e-business sites, has launched a series of training courses for e-commerce Web site quality assessors. The courses, which are currently offered free of charge, are designed for IT and Web professionals who want to become recognised as Clicksure assessors, as well as for those who simply have responsibility for e-commerce within their organisations.

First published in June 1999, the Clicksure standard is an independent global e-commerce verification program that addresses issues such as privacy, security, reliability and Web site content. To obtain certification, an e-business must undergo rigorous testing by Clicksure-trained assessors.

The course curriculum, co-developed by Oxford University and Clicksure, covers the eight principles of the Clicksure standard, technology issues, security, privacy, transaction processing and Web site navigation. For more information, visit www.clicksure.com.

COPORATE CULTURE

Give It Away

Let's face it, the wheels of business probably wouldn't spin properly without the help of corporate gifts to grease things along now and then. Whether you need to launch a new promotion, reward valued employees or simply want to butter-up that troublesome client, nothing lets you suck-up…er, I mean show your appreciation, like a snazzy present.

Enter wishlist.com.au, a new Australian Web site that takes the pain out of ordering and personalising corporate gifts. Offering everything from tried-and-true standards like shirts, caps and key chains to luxury items like gourmet hampers and bottles of wine, wishlist.com's gifts suit a wide variety of corporate occasions and events.

Want your corporate logo on that letter opener/travel clock/desk set? Not a problem - wishlist.com provides a clever online customisation tool that lets you preview what the selected item will look like with your logo on it.

Looking for a way to thank your IT team for giving up Sunday afternoon to complete that major upgrade? I recommend a set of wishlist.com's personalised stress balls.

RECOMMENDED READING

Read 'em & Reap

In a business arena as new as e-commerce, there aren't many people who can claim to be experts. The buzz surrounding online business might be great, but for e-managers seeking practical advice, useful guidance can be as rare as a benevolent hacker. Until now, that is - thanks to the arrival of two new books aimed squarely at executives charged with e-enabling their business.

Clicks and Mortar is the work of two men who can truly lay claim to the title "e-commerce expert": David S Pottruck, president and co-CEO of Charles Schwab, and Terry Pearce, Schwab's senior vice president of executive communication and founder of communication consultancy Leadership Communication. Together, the two turned the San Francisco-based Schwab into America's largest online brokerage, which now boasts over 3.3 million online customers. In Clicks and Mortar, the pair use examples from their own experience at Schwab, as well as those of noteworthy start-ups and Fortune 500 companies, to illustrate a broad range of successful e-commerce practices and principles.

However, Clicks and Mortar is much more than a catalogue of Pottruck and Pearce's successes. The pair provide many useful insights into the way e-business is transforming corporate culture, and invite comment on the future of commerce from several business and academic luminaries, including Microsoft's Steve Ballmer and Novell's Eric Schmidt.

Peter S Cohan's e-Profit covers similar ground, but Cohan approaches the material from a slightly different angle, and instead aims to instruct organisations on how to remove the "blocks" that obstruct the road to successful e-commerce.

Cohan covers the usual suspects, such as Amazon, Cisco, Microsoft and eBay, but is thoughtful enough to include examples from smaller organisations and traditional bricks-and-mortar companies, like Eastman Chemical, that have recently adopted e-business models. Accessible and full of useful anecdotes, you'd be hard pressed to find a better guide to e-business fundamentals.

Clicks and Mortar by David S Pottruck, Terry Pearce, Jossey-Bass, 2000, $49.41e-Profit: High Payoff Strategies for Capturing the E-commerce Edge by Peter S Cohan, Amacom, 2000, $60.34 BY THE NUMBERSE-Business and Best Practices E-business is much more than buying and selling on the Internet; it also involves supply chain management, customer relationship management and enterprise resource planning. US-based research organisation Benchmarking Partners, in a study sponsored by IBM, interviewed executives at 16 leading high-tech companies to identify best practices in their industry, which is considered at the forefront of the e-business revolution.

Sample Benefits From E-Business Best Practices Cross-Enterprise Order-to-Cash (a system manufacturer)-More than 75 per cent of orders received electronically-95 per cent of orders flow without human intervention-Order error rate reduced from 20 per cent to 2 per cent-Reduced order cycle time from 6-8 weeks to 1-3 weeksVirtual Factory(a device manufacturer)-Reduced manufacturing cycle time from 105 days to 55 days-Saved $US2 million from reduced inventory-Reduced carrying costs by $US400,000-Reduced confirmation of availability from six days to a few hoursFramework for Gauging E-Business MaturityUnderstanding the e-business maturity level of your industry provides a basis for developing an e-business strategy and architecture. The high-tech industry sets the high bar for e-business maturity because high-tech companies have complex products with short shelf lives. Meanwhile, many utilities haven't yet embraced e-business because they are wrestling with industry "disruptors" such as deregulation, according to Benchmarking Partners.

Best Practices for IT

1. Integrate at home. Smooth ties with your business partners require internal systems that work well together. "Having something like an ERP system is important," says Debra Hofman, a partner at Benchmarking Partners who oversaw the study. If you have disparate systems, it will be more difficult to integrate them with suppliers and distributors, Hofman adds. A company with disconnected internal systems will become a supply chain bottleneck.

2. Shoot for real-time interaction.

Customers and suppliers should be able to access current inventory information on the Web so that they can work together seamlessly. One company interviewed for the study has fully integrated its systems with a business partner's factory in Asia, so the two companies can operate as if they are one, Hofman says. External partners' systems should be integrated as though they were internal units.

3. Focus on core competencies. High-tech companies are increasingly outsourcing activities that aren't part of their central mission to trading partners. For example, Hofman notes that the Ciscos and Dells of the world no longer do all their manufacturing in-house. "Having Internet-based interaction enables companies to do this," she says. -- Susannah PattonSource: Benchmarking Partners and IBM (US)

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