Retraining for e-commerce
projects are much different than traditional system development projects.
Organizations that have successfully completed e-commerce initiatives know
that this business model revolves around cooperation and collaboration.
The goal: A smoother flow of information through the supply and value chains.
Yet some IT groups do not think in a collaborative manner because they have
been historically isolated in terms of business function. For example, one
IT group may support accounting, while another supports the human resource
department. An e-commerce business model, however, forces these once-separate
IT groups to deal with multiple departments and business partners on a cross-functional
order to work within the e-commerce business model, many members of these
IT groups may need to be retrained in order to "think outside of the box."
The new thought process
Companies involved in consumer packaged goods/retail merchandise, travel,
banking/ financial services and manufacturing are already changing their
IT models and retraining IT staff to think outside the organization. Companies
in these industries understand that IT staff must focus on broad, cross-functional
issues in order to successfully identify the problems and opportunities
inherent in e-commerce initiatives.
Any company that wishes to succeed in this new business environment
must also adapt its IT strategies. Yet it can be difficult for some IT
staff and management to make the leap from internal projects to e-commerce
projects. To help with this transition, IT management must get beyond
the "need to know" model of communication. Employees must be told about
the overall goal of the e-commerce initiative, not just the details of
their part of a specific project. IT staff must also be given the latitude
and tools to communicate not only across business functions in the organization,
but with business partners. This means that both IT and organizational
management must allow staff-level team members to communicate across functions
Organizations in general must now think of themselves as part of the
supply chain. And departments must think of themselves as part of the
overall organization value chain, not islands of business processes or
information. This means that managers must put aside turf issues and put
the interests of the organization ahead of their own group. Management
and staff must change their focus from strictly inside the organization
to inside and outside the company.
If this does not happen, potential problems may not be identified and
significant business opportunities might be missed.
While information sharing between organizations in the supply chain
is now mandatory, some executives still resist the idea of sharing information
access with business partners. For example, an executive at a midwestern
direct mail company nearly jumped out of her seat when a consultant suggested
the company create an extranet to allow business partners access to the
firm's computer systems. The executive simply couldn't get past the confidentiality
issues involved in direct communication between business partners on an
e-commerce initiative. The thought of one of their suppliers monitoring
their inventory levels and using automatic replenishment to keep inventory
flowing smoothly was too much for her to handle. Eventually, however,
the company did open its computer systems, but only after a painfully
thorough study of security problems.
The first step in retraining IT staff is to determine the benefits the
organization wants and expects from its e-commerce initiatives. Once business
needs have been identified, the organization and its IT groups must decide
what technologies will be used to serve those needs. An inventory of IT
e-commerce skills and business knowledge should also be drawn up. This
skills inventory covers more than just technical knowledge. For example,
IT staff often have little business background, and thus may not understand
supply and value chains. In order to contribute meaningfully to e-commerce
initiatives, employees must become business-literate. In some organizations
this may mean offering basic business literacy courses.
The knowledge and skill inventories form a profile of both individual
IT staff and the IT group as a whole. These inventories also allow the
organization to develop a gap document, which is a structured list of
what knowledge, skills and abilities are lacking in the IT group. From
the gap document, the IT group, along with the organization's human resource
department, can develop a training plan with specific, measurable goals
The next critical factor is money for the training program. Training
budgets are often the first to be cut and the last to be added to a project
or initiative. IT and business managers need to recognize that without
training, any e-commerce initiative is doomed to failure before it even
starts. It makes no sense to invest in technology in order to achieve
a competitive advantage and then fail to match that with a similar investment
in training. Training is vital if the organization is to realize the full
potential of e-commerce technology.
Training should be delivered about two to three weeks prior to when
the staff will need the skills. Once the training is completed, employees
should have a "sandbox" in which to practice and test their new skills.
If the training is delivered more than one month prior to the project
start date, the knowledge transferred may be forgotten. Conversely, training
delivered once the project is underway will most likely create a need
to go back and fix mistakes that would not have been made by properly
trained staff. It is also important to continuously check the effectiveness
of the training to see if the trainees "got it." And as the technology
and business model change over time, IT staff should receive ongoing training
and skill updates.
E-commerce will continue to grow at an incredibly fast pace, and the
Internet business model will likely evolve at the same pace. In order
to survive, companies must adapt to this new business environment or lose
out to the competition. To succeed, organizations should develop training
programs that provide IT staff with the knowledge, skills and abilities
to complete e-commerce initiatives. Companies will also need to ensure
that IT staff learn at least the basics of the specific organization's
business operations. There will likely be some resistance to this retraining
initially, but as IT staff get better at e-commerce projects, their familiarity
with the skill set and the intricacies of e-commerce projects will help
them adapt to "thinking outside the organization."
Charles H. Trepper is CEO of The Trepper Group, a Minneapolis-based consultancy.