E-commerce ideas aren't enough

Sometimes, it's not what you know, it's what else you know. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning philosopho-history Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond says human societies develop at different rates, but not because of differences in intelligence or ambition. Instead, he argues, some develop faster because of almost accidental alignments of specific technological developments.

In Europe, for example, the wheel and the domesticated beast of burden were both available early, making it easier for farmers to bring goods to local and regional markets. That mobility strengthened local economies and made it easier to fund long-distance trade, which strengthened the economy further.

An ocean away, the Aztecs had the wheel, but no beasts of burden except one another. Farther south, llamas bore burdens over the Andes, but the wheel remained unused. That limited the reach of even the great Mayan and Aztec civilisations.

The lesson? Even great ideas will die lonely deaths if they aren't nurtured and brought together with the other great ideas that can help them blossom.

That may sound obvious. But it's not the way most organisations work. Most companies are divided along operational lines, so people in marketing may never be able to find the IT people with the right ideas about the back-end technology that would make a radically great idea work.

E-commerce makes up so small a part of the overall revenue stream that divisional managers with profit-and-loss responsibilities have little incentive to help out budding e-commerce projects, even when everyone "knows" e-commerce is the wave of the future.

So the e-commerce group - often separated from the rest of the company to allow it to move faster - is left to build the e-business without the help of the people who are specialists in developing, marketing and selling the specific products of the company. So the company pays hundreds of thousands of dollars for the generic knowledge of consultants instead.

What's the solution? Some companies appoint an e-commerce czar, who is empowered to reach across divisional lines. But too often that power is basically limited to asking the divisional chiefs for favours or loans of staffers or resources. That's not enough. What e-commerce groups really need is outreach - a group of ambassadors whose job it is to circulate among the other departments and divisions and learn what they do for a living. Those ambassadors have to understand the business, as well as the mind-set of the people they're talking to. And they must be able to harvest the ideas of those specialists and figure out what makes sense online.

They need the business savvy to know which ideas are important, the technical skills to know what will work and specific permission from top management to go out among the masses and pull together the ideas and the infrastructure to make the best ideas reality. But most of all, they need the consistent, long-term support of top management. Otherwise, a winning idea and the technology that would make it work might as well be an ocean apart.

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