Virtual Organisations? Well, virtually.
Are we crazy? Through the genius of our technological innovators we have been presented with unprecedented operational and strategic opportunities.
The Internet... instant messaging... title="Opens in a new window">XML
... web services... broadband... mobile communications... all offering new ways of fundamentally improving the way in which we work and communicate. Yet - and I know you'll have your own examples - there remains a gulf between what technology could deliver and what we actually get.
Why? For reasons that I will cover, we business people unintentionally squander opportunities through superficial implementations dealing only with immediate issues. Become aware and deal with The Integration Barrier
every time you deal with technology or users of technology.
E-business web sites and systems are there to make money, by delivering services more effectively and more efficiently. Integration is the process of coming together and combining to better deliver a goal. Without it, we cannot come close to effective e-business.
In e-business, integration must come in four discrete areas:
Integration with Internal Systems
It is pretty obvious why an e-business system must share information with the rest of the organisation's systems. Key benefits include reduction of manual data entry and consequent reduction in administrative costs, error rates and improvement in quality of management information.
This area is usually considered high priority and is good news for technology implementers being a readily understandable and documentable exercise with clear boundaries. The benefits are easily calculated. Once a system is talking to the in-house systems, it is usually considered to be integrated. Big mistake.
Integration with The Way Customers Work
Thankfully some companies are beginning to recognise that it might be a great idea to actually make systems work in a way that customers feel comfortable with. In the past developers and users seem to have existed in parallel universes, one developing title="Opens in a new window">flashy, graphical sites
, the other crying out for easy access to information. Splash screens, animations and bizarre navigation systems have stood in the way of users gathering information or doing business.
This will sound familiar: a web site I (unfortunately) have to use regularly has an animation of a bird as a starting point (complete with sound - always fun in an office). The web site has nothing to do with birds, of course, and the animation says nothing about the organisation. Except perhaps, they don't mind wasting my time.
At last the usability of web sites for customers is king. And not before time - even today seven out of every ten e-commerce transactions are aborted part way through. Retaining just three of those customers could double sales. Macromedia has target="_blank" title="Opens in a new window">joined forces
with usability specialists title="Opens in a new window">The Nielsen Norman Group
and is adopting consistent, more user-friendly standards for its much derided Flash technology. Developers now have access to a range of excellent sources of usability knowledge - title="Opens in a new window">Webword.com
and target="_blank" title="Opens in a new window">IBM
being the best - and are becoming more aware of what they need to do to actually make their sites a pleasure to use. There is a long road ahead undoing bad sites and replacing them with ones in which users actually know what they are doing.
More usable systems have also been shown to increase referral business by 30% and repeat business by 23%.
Integration with The Way Employees Work
While customers are getting the benefit from increased usability, our research has shown that employees are not. Amazingly, in 2002, employees in many large organisations still work with systems where obtaining a simple print-out is a complex event, often involving painful minutes of "screen dumping." Because the system works, albeit inefficiently, little cognisance is taken of how much time and effort could be saved within the organisation by making the systems reflect the way employees on the ground actually do their work.
This has much to do with finance - how systems are paid for. Very little money is set aside for usability testing by end users prior to purchase and during implementation - the best place and time to fix such problems. After implementation the budget dries up completely, meaning that managers have to battle for cash - and admit their systems aren't perfect to their peers - in order to make changes.
Unsurprisingly, employees are left to a daily fight with systems. Research has shown that companies with systems that help rather than hinder have lower staff turnover. Consider the cost of that. And the cost of mistakes. And the cost of training.
Still not convinced? title="Opens in a new window">AT&T
saved 2 million euro in training costs alone though introducing more usable systems.
Integration with Customers' Systems
Customers, usually, have computer systems and will always their own ways of working. So why not make life easier for them by directly integrating?
Offering access to your products and services through a web portal only goes a small way towards increasing convenience and, being essentially manual, rarely increases efficiency at the customer's end.
There are ground-breaking shifts - for example target="_blank" title="Opens in a new window">eProcurement Scotland
is offering the public sector access to hundreds of suppliers through a single interface. Here, critically, they are also considering the back end integration for the participating organisations which will automate much of the processing.
Elsewhere, organisations must concentrate on developing and integrating XML, SOAP, J2EE and Microsoft�s .net standards for easy and consistent data transfer. These standards - in particular XML - need to develop making adoption and ongoing change easier.
But what about consumers? On the web, consumers predominantly use search engines. While not expressed in these terms, companies have been placing great effort to integrate with the way search engines work and therefore with the primary system currently used by consumers to find information. Whatever the motivation, providing keywords and descriptors that make search engines more accurate and efficient is now the norm.
As yet, consumers don't generally operate financial and procurement systems. But surely this should be a logical next step.
Google already offers its excellent target="_blank" title="Opens in a new window">toolbar
that integrates searching with discussion and research. This is relevant, because it is a one step application that integrates with a web browser and provides effective, consistent access to services.
For consumers, buying online involves working with dozens of different web site designs and payment methods. Online shopping malls tend to be relatively unsophisticated.
Why can't a common application be developed for consumer procurement? A single search and navigation method. Single payment mechanism. A single interface, regardless of which supplier I am buying from. Why can't I buy from three suppliers in a single transaction? The system in turn would integrate with my bank account or credit card, and with my financial package. And in time - if technology gurus would have us believe them - our larder. Price comparison would become a breeze. Only then will consumer eProcurement be genuinely easier and more effective than a trip to the high street.
I'm not even suggesting one size fits all here: with open standards a number of applications could become available, all providing access to the same services but with their own distinctive look and feel.
Of course it would mean agreed, open, achievable standards. Technically it's feasible. But is it really too difficult to achieve?
Integration costs money - but can you really afford not to get over the Integration Barrier? Start calculating the money that can be saved through improving usability and integration.