Electronic commerce enters a new e-Poch

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The Independent Online
The internet and electronic commerce may be the most talked about aspects of business of the moment - but many organisations stop at the talk, writes Roger Trapp.

That, at least, is the view of Richard Heale, a self-confessed, electronic- business enthusiast who is launching a workshop programme designed to equip executives with "the management insight, tools and techniques necessary to lead their organisation astutely" into this new world.

With initial research by his firm, the leading executive search consultancy Horton International, indicating that the vast majority of British businesses are either deciding that electronic commerce is not for them or waiting to see how it develops, he feels that his venture will provide the impetus they need to change their minds.

Mr Heale stresses that he understands that executives see it as good risk management to hesitate over moving into a field with which they are barely familiar. But given that certain commentators are claiming that electronic business has the potential to make a huge impact on company results, he suggests "it's a bit irresponsible" for them to ignore it.

Indeed, examples such as the Encyclopedia Britannica's suffering at the hands of Microsoft's Encarta are evidence of how the rules of business can be transformed almost overnight.

The need for businesses of all sorts to weigh up the threats and opportunities in what is an immensely complex field has convinced Mr Heale of the need for a new kind of senior executive. Such individuals - widely dubbed "digital change managers" - are starting to appear in some forward-thinking organisations. And he hopes that his initiative - e-Poch - will lead to more.

Hitherto, organisations have either appointed people with vague titles such as head of new media or given total responsibility for what is essentially a new way of doing business to information technology departments.

Neither is the way ahead, says Mr Heale, who became convinced of the power of electronic commerce when the small multi-media firm he started in Western Australia attracted enough interest around the world that it was bought by a US company. Giving responsibility for this type of activity to IT is a mistake because it makes the issue technology rather than strategy. Equally, giving people ill-defined responsibilities is not likely to produce a coherent approach.

The workshop series, due to start in April, has six core elements covering such areas as marketing and communications, human resources, learning and management as well as the electronic conduct of business itself. In addition to these two-day sessions, there is a single day designed to draw it all together. In the second half of the year there will be four one-day workshops devoted to strategy and aimed at chief executives and other board members. Those who have been through the process will become part of a community that will be kept in touch via a website with monthly updates.

Though it is envisaged that organisations will select single individuals to take part in the programme, he acknowledges that it will suit some to send different people to different elements. The key to the project, he says, is that participants should realise that they are not going to be lectured at by the panel of experts he has assembled. Instead, they will spend the time doing so much thinking that when they emerge "their brains will hurt".

Though the course is challenging and expensive (nearly pounds 12,000) there has been great interest, and not just in Britain. Though the US is generally reckoned to be significantly ahead of the UK in acceptance of electronic commerce, the sheer size of the market means that not all companies there are at the leading edge, and Mr Heale is optimistic of attracting significant numbers of inquiries when the e-Poch venture is launched there soon.