E-biz the right way

Applying yesterday's project management approach or sprinkling the magic fairy dust of 'e' onto traditional IT projects is the wrong way to do e-business. Few companies recognise that e-business calls for a new approach to selecting, staffing, and managing projects.

Applying yesterday's project management approach or sprinkling the magic fairy dust of "e" onto traditional IT projects is the wrong way to do e-business. Few companies recognise that e-business calls for a new approach to selecting, staffing, and managing projects.

For one thing, most companies have more e-business projects in the pipeline than they can handle. A key element of e-business project management, therefore, is focusing your resources on the most important projects.

Unfortunately, a lot of companies lack a sound framework for deciding which projects are selected, and many "go/no-go" e-business decisions are based on political jockeying rather than on true business value. Developing an objective set of criteria -- based on strategy, payback, and risk -- is vital for guiding e-business project starts.

Although this is a good all-around project management practice, it's even more essential when we're talking about e-business.

Indecent exposure

Another reason e-business projects are unique is that they expose your company to the outside world. In the past it was possible to mask your organisation's inefficiencies.

The sharing of customers' private information, the security holes on your e-commerce site, and the mishandling of orders that customers can track themselves with a web browser are some of the places where weakness in your business processes may be revealed. Therefore, when launching e-business projects, companies must shift from being internally focused and efficiency-minded to involving partners early and often. Before launching an e-business initiative, for instance, some companies map out on a white board all the affected parties and make plans as to when they will become involved in the project. These companies also ensure that IT and business unit staff are part of cross-functional teams right from the start.

I recently talked to an IT manager from a business-to-business exchange in the manufacturing sector who was about to roll out to partners a new, custom-built application for order entry. He was very concerned about end-user training and how his helpdesk would be perceived by the partners when they started calling with questions about the new application. Consequently, he was spending a good deal of time and money building training courses, flying people all over for training, assessing the abilities of end-users, etc. If that application were rolled out internally, he admitted, training would have received less attention, the help desk would have looked bad, but life would go on. The increased exposure -- in this case of the competence of the IT organisation -- had spurred this IT executive to be extra diligent about training.

Another key difference between e-business and traditional IT projects is that e-biz work is often experimental. It's okay to fail! It's feasible, then, that a company would launch a project just to test out an idea. But know which efforts merit experimentation, know when to pull the plug, and figure out how to share what you learn from the effort. The metrics for e-business project success are not a cut-and-dried "on time and within budget."

A great deal of rushing to "be there first" and capture more eyeballs than the competition characterised e-business projects of the past year. Although rapid development is often required for e-business projects, it does not eliminate the need for planning. On the contrary, it takes more planning because you must decide which core functions to pursue early and which ones can wait. Don't allow the need to jump into the web result in bad design.

You can't do it alone

Finally, e-business projects are unique in that most companies cannot do it all themselves. E-business requires outside-the-box thinking, and it's essential to get second opinions and new points of view. Even if you had all the skills required to do an e-business project in-house (and I've yet to meet any CIO who does), it would still behoove you to look externally.

On top of that, it's next to impossible to internally develop all the skills needed to take on e-business, so a key part of e-business project planning is the development of a sourcing strategy. Lately, as the economy has slumped, many companies have gutted their organisations by eliminating the contractors and consultants (many of whom were working on e-business initiatives). Although this may be a fast and easy way to cut back, the results of letting that talent loose and bringing all that work back in-house are likely to be disastrous for some companies.

Gomolski is a research director at Gartner Group, a Stamford, Connecticut-based research firm. Send email to Barbara Gomolski.

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