If you want to get a head start in the marketplace of the future, it's time to brush up on technology skills

Electronic commerce is one of the hottest topics in business circles today. It is expected to have a huge impact on business, consumers and government and revolutionise the way in which we live and work. But those organisations which imagine all they need to do is create a website for themselves are destined for future disappointment as they get overtaken by their competitors. Making effective use of e-commerce lies at the heart of the future competitiveness of most businesses.

Electronic commerce is one of the hottest topics in business circles today. It is expected to have a huge impact on business, consumers and government and revolutionise the way in which we live and work. But those organisations which imagine all they need to do is create a website for themselves are destined for future disappointment as they get overtaken by their competitors. Making effective use of e-commerce lies at the heart of the future competitiveness of most businesses.

Although popularly associated with businesses selling to the public, most e-commerce is business to business. Moreover, the inter-company trade of goods over the internet is expected to double every year over the next five years. The value is expected to reach $1,300bn by 2003.

There has already been a stampede of organisations setting up websites to reach their customers. This makes good commercial sense. They can provide information on their products and services which in the past would have required expensive advertising or printed brochures. The information can be immediately updated and is accessible worldwide.

However, many organisations have as yet failed to put in place the necessary systems to back up what is potentially a global type of business requiring an immediate response to customer demands. Businesses need to integrate all aspects of their operations such as customer databases, accounting and banking, procurement and purchasing. And they will not gain the full benefits of e-commerce unless their system enables information to flow from customers to everybody in their supply chain.

Unfortunately, few organisations have the necessary in-house expertise to develop an effective e-commerce strategy. The demand for expertise in this field vastly outstrips supply. However, training providers are now working to close this gap.

The University of Plymouth's School of Computing is launching a postgraduate programme in e-commerce to begin this autumn. Dr Peter Jagodzinski, reader in human-centred systems design and designer of the new programme, explains why. He points out the level of activity in the United States and the interest being generated by here the media and the Government. He says that job adverts show the huge demand for e-commerce skills. Moreover, salaries are around 50 per cent higher than other computer staff.

"This seemed to us an area ripe for a highly focused form of postgraduate course. The aim of the course is to appeal to a number of different sectors. We do expect to get people who've had experience of the computer industry who need to be re-trained in the skills that are needed by the new technology and the new way of doing business over the internet.

"We see e-commerce as a new type of system development based on the re-usability of existing code. Whereas in the past people specialised in fairly narrow areas of computing expertise, the demands of e-commerce are not so much for specialists in individual areas but people who can integrate many separate technologies, including new web languages like Java, multimedia design, the underlying database technologies, communications and networking technologies, and also the business systems analysis and design which has to surround the whole technological package if it is to make business sense.

"Organisations entering e-commerce may have to consider how they reposition themselves in the marketplace. So on our course some modules, run by the Plymouth Business School, are concerned with the strategic positioning of organisations to take advantage of e-commerce."

In addition to computer specialists, Dr Jagodzinski says: "We think the course is accessible to people from any discipline who are numerate and have some programming experience."

Traditional university computing courses are often criticised for producing graduates who need at least a year's work experience before they are really productive. This programme claims to be "intensely industry focused" in offering academic rigour combined with industry-recognised, Microsoft-accredited training courses. Finally, the programme is structured into certificate, diploma and masters awards (tel: 01752 232541 or www.tech.plym.ac.uk/soc).

Less specialised one-month courses in e-commerce programming are already being run by People Energy Ltd of Llangollen in North Wales. The company began computer training two years ago. The e-commerce courses consist of four one-week modules which may be taken singly or as a whole. Because most students come from the main urban areas of London, Birmingham and Manchester, the courses are residential.

The first week introduces the subject and concentrates on Java programming, Java being the language used to construct web pages. This requires a prior knowledge of data types and variables, basic programming constructs and at least one procedural based programming language. Programming courses, which can be taken concurrently or just prior to the e-commerce programme, are run by the company for those who lack this prior knowledge.

The second module, which deals with web page design and creation, requires no prior knowledge. The third module is concerned with "interactivity" - how people can feed information in and get an appropriate response, and the final module looks at the mainly non-technical issues such as the principles and legal issues of e-commerce, security and encryption, and how to ensure the effectiveness of your website (tel: 01978 869111 or www.people-energy.co.uk).

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