Strategies lose out when fear rules

How much of your e-commerce strategy is driven by fear? A friend of mine works in a top-flight financial services company. Lots of history, lots of infrastructure. A sophisticated, tough-minded, aggressive place that sells specialised info to investment banks and other mega traders, using expensive proprietary computers and networks.

It's obvious to everyone from the CEO to the cleaner that the Web is pushing them toward a lower-cost distribution system that reaches out to a wider swath of customers.

But middle managers aren't willing to put their huge bonuses at risk by launching e-commerce efforts that could hurt their divisional pay and loading. Staffers can't make themselves heard. Top managers are distracted by politics and hidebound tradition, and by uncertainty about what would happen if they changed the business model.

They're paralysed, afraid to do more than dip their toes into the e-commerce waters, even knowing that if they don't at least paddle around a bit, the rising flood will eventually drown them.

That's a new kind of fear for many companies - and for many IT people.

IT people used to worry about whether they'd get fired for buying or building the wrong system; that the system would be too hard to use or wouldn't work at all.

That's a healthy fear. It's the kind that keeps us from walking on building parapets, leaping into traffic without looking or committing ourselves to a presidential candidate based on a sound bite.

But there's a new kind of fear among the technologists at major companies. It's an immobilising, intoxicating, judgement-impairing terror that has become worse because its source is something over which IT has little control - their company's e-commerce strategy and whether the Web will enhance their careers or destroy them.

It's the desperate fear of being left behind in a world that's changing forever, but not being able to figure out how to change with it. Or worse, knowing how to change but being unable to convince anyone that you are right.

That fear can work for you. It can be a great motivator. It's fuelled the rise of Microsoft and Intel, among others. Fear of being overwhelmed has driven Amazon's Jeff Bezos into burning hundreds of millions just trying to grow big enough to survive.

But fear is only an advantage if it doesn't control you - just as e-commerce gives your company leverage only if it's accomplishing what the business really needs.

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