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THINKTANK: The revolution is dead, long live the revolution

THINKTANK: The revolution is dead, long live the revolution

Let me make some predictions: by mid-2002, industry pundits and speculators will again drive the prices of dot-coms to ridiculously high values, people will talk of the Internet's "second wave", and e-commerce will once again be touted as the key to having a successful, modernised company.

The first two predictions are based on the notion that people tend to repeat their behavioural patterns, rather like Skinner's famous rodents. History has proven that we fail to learn from our mistakes, no matter how smart we may think we are.

The third prediction, however, worries me the most. Contrary to popular opinion, I believe the term "e-commerce" should be abolished both as a buzzword and as an ideology by which you measure your business. E-commerce is simply past its use-by date and we need to bury it.

But wait, let me explain.

The term "Web strategy" is currently used with careless abandon. Consultants are falling out of the sky, promising quick antidotes to corporate ailments. They say the universal cure is e-commerce. Yet, how many have actually thought about what e-commerce means precisely?

Many don't realise that e-commerce represents a channel for your existing business, no matter which electronic medium (the Internet, fax or even Morse code) is used to facilitate it. Not exactly revolutionary.

Secondly, e-commerce is not a business unto itself, nor should it be considered a separate arm of any company. Even so, many organisations are having their Web strategies developed in situ, isolated from the practicalities of running a company. This is largely the fault of those within the IT industry who position e-commerce as a revolutionary vehicle around which a company is built, rather than acknowledging it for what it really is - an effective channel that fits within a pre-existing business model. E-commerce has no more right claiming to be revolutionary than the fax machine. However, rather than changing the way people do business, e-commerce evangelists have been trying to convince companies to change their entire business models. We have seen companies spend thousands of dollars creating intricate e-commerce strategies that do not fit their customers' existing - and often successful - operations.

So we are facing many unsatisfied customers who have glimpsed the e-commerce Holy Land, yet have been left with a redundant white elephant. So what can be done?

Firstly, let's remove e-commerce from its pedestal and put its usefulness into perspective. There is no question that increasing data transmission rates, easing the speed of transactions, is useful to all companies. But it is our industry's duty to create a more realistic view of Internet use in the business arena, not least of all because we are responsible for our promises to corporate consumers. And our promise should be about technologies that fit the customers' business practices.

Secondly, the term "e-commerce" should be abolished and I believe it will be - through a natural process. As the industry realises that e-commerce requires a holistic approach, the word itself will be used less frequently until it lies alongside other "world-changing" terms such as "push technology", "B2C" and "portal". And if you believe this is unlikely, let me remind you it wasn't so long ago that businesses wanted to be known as "dot coms".

And then we can start over, for instance, by asking: e-commerce - one or two words?

Photograph: Peter Bray, managing director of Clear Blue Day


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