Teaming Up for the Web

FRAMINGHAM (04/10/2000) - The Web has changed the nature of how organizations' information technology and business sides work together. Gone are the days when just one side called the shots. To ensure a successful site, the two must be equal partners.

On the Internet, IT "isn't just a support function," says Keith Fox, vice president of new media at The Reader's Digest Association Inc. in Pleasantville, New York. "It's much more of a collaboration, and IT is an owner" in both the process and the result, he says.

Upscale clothing merchant Lands' End Inc., which conducts about 10 percent of its business on the Web, recently launched a personal-shopping feature on its site. Thanks to tight linkage between IT and the business side, the service - called Lands' End Live - has been a huge success and yields "several hundred" customer queries each day, says Linda Severson, director of business systems at the Dodgeville, Wisconsin-based firm.

IT was involved in that project "every step of the way" and managed it from both the business and technology sides, Severson says. The idea for the project originated in a weekly brainstorming meeting attended by staffers from every part of the company.

Lands' End isn't alone. In fact, this type of partnership is more critical than ever in the Web world, observers say.

"The Web has much more of an impact on the business" than did previous applications that didn't touch customers directly, says Chris Selland, vice president of e-commerce strategies at The Yankee Group in Boston. "It's one thing to screw up my payroll application, and it's another thing entirely to screw up the Web site where everyone can see it." So, he says, "the line-of-business folks have gotten much more interested in IT."

Yet IT professionals and those in the business units can still have "very different" perspectives, Selland says. It's essential to cross the gap if a company is to succeed on the Web. It can be done, but it takes active participation from both sides. The best partnerships happen when technical staffers understand the business and business users have a passion for technology.

For example, when it came to hiring employees for Aetna Inc.'s e.Health initiative, the insurance giant seeded its teams by splitting IT and business employees among them, says Malcolm Welch, the company's chief technology officer. Aetna used in-house people when it started its e-commerce teams. It sought out techies with business savvy and looked for business users who "by background or personal tendencies" understood technology, Welch says. The Hartford, Connecticut-based company has since supplemented its staff with technologists who are in an MBA-style program.

"We need people who are a cross between technology-literate and business-literate," Welch says. "It's been a transition for us."

Defining the application

The big difference between the Internet and previous technologies is that now both IT and business define an application, observers agree. In the past, businesspeople defined problems, and IT built the specifications. Now, it's more of a back-and-forth process, where business defines a problem and IT then describes how it could happen online; that way, the scope of a project can change even as it's being built.

"The business realizes if we can do that, then I really want to do something totally different," Welch says. "It's much more push-pull vs. before."

Another factor is the "need to play outside the walls of your own enterprise," says Fulton Wilcox, director of technology business development at BOC Gases Inc. in Murray Hill, New Jersey. "You have to understand all these issues about your customers and suppliers, as well as about yourself."

Indeed, observers agree that the essential ingredient for IT staffers to be viewed as effective e-commerce partners is a willingness to learn business issues and the ability to see the big picture. The good news, Wilcox says, is that "the abilities of internal IT people to adapt to this world are underestimated" in most companies.

"The fundamental skills that IT people bring to this new world are very useful, if they can get training [in both business and technology issues] and understand the broader horizons," he says. After all, as Wilcox says, "nobody can do this alone."

Ambrosio is a freelance writer in Marlboro, Mass. Contact her at JohannaAmbrosio@aol.com.

We Can Work it Out

Some tips on how to make a business/IT e-commerce partnership effective:

-- Don't focus on just the technical skills needed for the Web. Ensure that IT staffers understand the big picture of the company's business.

-- Attend business-side strategy and planning meetings, and send your people, too.

-- From the IT side, make sure there are clear project leaders in different technical areas.

-- Make sure that the teams of business and IT people working together are truly empowered to change processes, resolve conflicts and do whatever it takes to succeed with the project.

-- Stay on a common track by focusing on what the customer wants and needs to get out of the project. What will the customer be able to do differently or do for the first time, and what will his experience be like?

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