Retraining for e-commerce

Electronic 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 basis. In
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 and organizations.

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.

Retraining steps

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 and timetables.

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.

The future

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."

About the Author

Charles H. Trepper is CEO of The Trepper Group, a Minneapolis-based consultancy.