On one of my frequent flights across the country a few years ago, having digested the reading material from the seat pocket in front of me, I asked the flight attendant for a magazine and was offered a publication geared to IT professionals. I won't disclose the name of the magazine here, but suffice to say that it proved what my suspicions had been up to at that point: IT staffs have been giving companies "the business."
An editorial in the back of the magazine trumpeted the following headline: "Has the CIO Become the New CEO?" The writer argued that since Internet technology has become so complex and requires such a high level of technical expertise, it was time for the CIO to replace the traditional CEO as the leader of a company. It seemed to him that the lowly CEO with a business degree—or a market vision—just couldn't cut it in the new Net Economy. Without the skill set of an IT professional, the CEO could not meet the digital challenges of the new business environment. Thus the CIO, at the top of the food chain of engineers, was the natural choice to run companies competing in today's New Economy.
Where did IT professionals with degrees in computer science and engineering miraculously attain the knowledge of running a business? This is comparable to a construction company building a Wal-Mart and then deciding to go into the completed store to market, sell, procure, and manage the inventory. And this type of mentality is ingrained even down to lowest level of IT workers.
A year or so later, I had a heated discussion with a Webmaster who claimed that he could not only build Web sites for his business clients but also show them how to market their products on the Web, since he "knew" the Internet. After all, what's the big deal in opening a business on the Net? All you need is a Web site, a database-driven catalog, an automated shopping cart, an auto-response email program, and a contact page. And if you really want to impress your visitors, you throw in some really cool animation, Java programs, and streaming media—forgetting what true business types know—build to the customer, not the engineer. You're not in business to entertain customers, but to sell them.
As many dot-coms have become dot-bombs, the curtain has been pulled away to reveal what was true all the time: The emperor—in this case, the IT professional—has no clothes. Many business professionals think that the Internet is a technology solution, when it's really a business strategy. The business of the Internet is business; you can't automatically turn a programmer or computer engineer into a business developer. The online channel should be treated like any other marketing channel—planned, designed, and marketed by businesspeople—leaving the building of the infrastructure to the IT staff. Not the other way around.
Technology Is Not a Solution
Don't get me wrong. I have worked with some great IT professionals on many Internet projects; the best ones know the difference between technology and business. Case in point: On one recent very complex project of creating a dynamic pricing solution for merchants on the Web, my CTO offered me three options to solve one of several business problems that needed to be addressed with the technology. He said, "I have three possible technology solutions to your problem. Each one will work technically. But I need a business decision from you as to which one will work best for your business model."
No matter what engineers tell you, technology is not a solution. Technology is just hardware and software—no more, no less. The solution comes from how you apply it. And that takes business savvy. Or, in other words, "It's the customer, stupid!"
You would think that today, after the dot-com collapse, everyone would get it. No so. Many in management from the CEO down still get bedazzled by their IT staff as newer technology applications become available for commerce: wireless applications, peer-to-peer systems, and so on. So what should you and your management personnel know about the Internet to speak intelligently with your IT staff when they come to you with their "solutions"?
To start, keep these rules in mind:
Does it solve a problem or create one?
Your IT staff will present potential solutions to online business problems you ask them to solve. The engineer will most often recommend the one that's easiest to implement and manage; but that might not be the best for your customers or your business. Does the technology application make life easier for your customers and managers? If not, send the engineers back to the drawing board.
Work on your priorities, not theirs.
When the business side of the business creates a program to generate revenue or market a product, and needs a technology application to achieve it, make sure that the engineers don't fight these improvements just because the schedule doesn't work for them. Here's a real-life example. One company I worked with had a state-of-the-art comparison-shopping engine. The marketing department came up with a way to generate revenue for the company by selling sponsorships to merchants, promising that their listings would come up first in the search results. But the engineering department was following their own step-by-step plan for improvement of the technology, and fought hard not to interrupt their process with a request that wasn't on their revision list. Yet, without a revenue-generating program, the company couldn't afford to continue the development of the technology.
Get your business staff to speak the language.
You don't have to have an engineering degree to understand the business uses of the Internet. Prompt your staff to learn to "walk the walk and talk the talk" so that they can communicate better with your IT staff. How? By having them receive a seminar in their email inbox every day. There are literally thousands of email discussion lists on the Net that people can subscribe to and join in the discussion. Many of these discussion lists focus on marketing, advertising, business strategy, sales, procurement, customer service, human resources, operations, and how technology of the Internet is being applied to each. One of the best places to find these email discussion lists is at http://www.topica.com. Encourage your staff to subscribe to a discussion list that matches their part of your business. Even if they just read the daily and weekly posts and don't participate in the discussion, they'll learn from those companies that are using the Internet to further their business objectives.
Be a peacemaker.
I once knew a CEO who talked about his IT staff as if they were ill-mannered relatives that needed to be hidden from everyone outside the family. Just keep the engineers locked in a room and toss a pizza under the door every so often, he said. This is not the attitude to take with your IT staff. They should be involved from the start in the strategy of the project. Make sure that all the engineers working on a project—not just the IT managers—understand the business strategy you're trying to implement and how the engineering applications will tactically achieve it. This would help alleviate the problems in rules 1 and 2 above. Let them know what you want the customer experience to be—not just the objective of the application. It's not enough to have a customer get from point A to point B on your site or on any other Internet application. The engineers have to understand what kind of experience the customer will have while doing it. If it's a bad experience, you may lose a customer for life.
In 1959, C. P. Snow, the British novelist, scientist, and government administrator, wrote The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge University Press). In the book, he argues that practitioners of each of the two disciplines—Arts and Sciences—know little, if anything, about the other, and that communication between them is difficult if not impossible. What Snow wrote then has its parallels today between the disciplines of business and technology. Yet, as Internet professionals and pioneers, we need not fall into the same trap. Business types and technology types can learn to work together to serve the most important client of all—the customer.