Who's in charge of your Web strategy?

Who's in charge of your Web strategy?

Most companies doing business on the Web suffer from a kind of schizophrenia: they have one team dedicated to IT and development issues while an entirely different team takes on the look, feel and function of a site.

But when thorny issues arise concerning a company's Web endeavours - from operational questions to strategy issues - there is usually nobody in charge to call the shots, leaving crucial decisions in the hands of an unruly, ad-hoc group.

Unlike CTOs or CIOs for a technology strategy, or CEOs and CFOs for business and financial strategy, there often exists no single person responsible for heading up a well thought-out Web strategy. While titles such as e-business manager and director of e-commerce have started to appear, the functions and purposes of these newly created positions vary greatly.

But the need to develop a single position or team dedicated to Web strategy is emerging as an increasingly urgent issue, especially as an unprecedented number of companies rely on the new medium for important functions such as customer service and sales.

What's tricky about the Web is that it has inextricably linked two traditional business functions that, in earlier days, couldn't have been more foreign to the other: IT and marketing. Now that the Web has made strange bedfellows of these two departments, online strategies are prone to fall between the cracks of these very different business units.

That rising din of childish squabbling you hear is coming from corporate conference rooms across the globe, from countless "Web strategy" meetings between IT and marketing departments. And the fights all follow along roughly the same lines:

Marketing: "Our customers would like products to be teleported to them over the wireless Web so they can actually touch them before they buy. You can do that, right?"

IT: "How about a nice plain-text description instead?"

And from there, such conversations generally fall into pointless and chaotic infighting. With all the quarrelling, it's actually amazing that so many e-business sites found their way onto the Web in the first place. Of course, the consequences of ignoring the importance of a well-planned online business strategy have been made painfully obvious this year.

The value of having a strategic-minded manager dedicated to the whole panoply of Web operations should not be underestimated. Imagine what a decent-sized company would be like without someone in charge of finance, if the day-to-day monetary affairs of a multimillion-dollar organisation got left to the various departments to sort out. Actually, I've been at a company like that and to give you an idea of what life was like, let me just mention the time somebody forgot to pay the toilet paper wholesaler - it was not a pretty sight, I assure you.

It's jarring when you think about how many billions of dollars have already been spent on Web technology and realise that only a mere fraction of those resources have gone toward creating a solid strategy for how that technology will be used. It's like paying for all the equipment and resources to start a telephone customer service centre with only a vague notion of what to do with it or who will run it.

And if you think e-business has completely gone the way of the dinosaurs, think again. Research group IDC estimates that, despite this year's dotcom bust, e-business will have a US$5.3 trillion impact on the global economy as soon as 2005. Gigi Wang, IDC's senior vice president of communications and Internet research, says: "Although the effects of the market changes are obvious, the underlying dynamics show that dramatic growth in e-business investment and returns will continue."

E-business growth projections aside, there's also the task of managing outside vendors, a disparate array of in-house employees and results-hungry executives. The question then becomes, how can a company survive without a manager charged solely with carrying out Web operations?

So what does the ideal Web manager look like? It would be somebody who speaks fluently the languages of technological minutiae and marketing strategy. It would be somebody able to manage effectively the concerns of outside vendors, front-line employees and the executive suite. It would be somebody with one eye cast towards achieving bottom-line results and the other towards creating a top-notch online customer experience.

Do such people exist? Of course they do, and they exist in droves amid companies of all shapes and sizes. But with the relative newness of the Web, these workers are a bit like tadpoles: they have evolved from some previous form into an amorphous, ill-defined shape. But soon, if companies are smart, they will help them become full-grown frogs.

What makes a good Web manager?

- knowledge of Web technologies.

- experience in formulating marketing strategies.

- experience in providing customer service.

- effective negotiation and people skills.

- financial management experience.

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