Off the cybershelf: books for the seriously connected

Cultural pundits of late have been wringing their hands over a surge in the publication of sordid memoirs and what the public's apparently voracious appetite for them says about our society. By the same token, e-commerce fans should be heartened by the Web and Internet books that are now coming to market. The days of navigation guides, cool-site compilations and "10 Steps to a Successful Web Presence" primers are passing; in their place comes a spate of serious books about doing serious business online.

To see how far we've come, readers need only look at the opening chapter of Richard Gascoyne's excellent Corporate Internet Planning Guide: Aligning Internet Strategy With Business Goals (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1997). As recently as last year, most Web experts argued that companies should rush to the Internet because the first-shows would grab all the glory. Gascoyne's reasons for striking early are far more substantive: doing so allows companies to, among other things, test profit models, drive standards, establish early alignments with optimal business partners and restructure the organisation to operate within new business models.

Planning Guide's strength is that it prompts corporate leaders to ask the strategic question, "What can the Internet do for my business?" rather than the reactive, "What can my business do on the Internet?" Toward that end, Gascoyne guides his readers through old and new business assumptions about everything from customer relationships to profit models and explains, in bottom-line terms, what the Internet changes and how companies can best exploit those changes. And how refreshing it is to read - after years of "be there or be square" arguments - such logical truths as, "[An] effective Internet strategy must be fully and thoughtfully embraced, aligned with your business strategy and independent of competitors' actions."

Corporate colours

Several other volumes have a narrower focus but still treat Web business with the gravity it deserves. Amit Maitra's somewhat sparse Building a Corporate Internet Strategy: The IT Manager's Guide (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1996), for example, is a more nuts-and-bolts treatise that nonetheless contains an in-depth, management-centric discussion of measuring Internet ROI. Jim Sterne, meanwhile, segues from the way-oversubscribed marketing field (which by now harbours more titles than the Hardy Boys series) into the related area of customer service. And even if a substantial chunk of Customer Service on the Internet: Building Relationships, Increasing Loyalty and Staying Competitive (John Wiley & Sons, 1996) is devoted to the wonder that is Cisco, well, so what? Cisco exploits the Web so effectively that it could stand as a role model for service-minded companies everywhere, and Sterne's book is smart (and entertaining) about why that is so.

Addressing those subjects from a somewhat higher plane, John Hagel and Arthur Armstrong take the notion of virtual communities, widely considered a social phenomenon, and demonstrate how they can be applied to business. Net Gain: Expanding Markets through Virtual Communities (Harvard Business School Press, 1997) explains how Web sites that feature user-generated content, promote personal relationships and include mechanisms for profiling community members are best positioned to make money from those who love them. True, many sites discussed here appeal primarily to consumers, but the advantages of this model for the business marketplace are clear.

Of course, the best business leaders are those who can not only interpret the present but also imagine the future. Wannabe visionaries will want to read Michael Dertouzos's What Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives (HarperEdge, 1997), the perfect book for executives who have the Internet all figured out and now want to try something hard.