UK e-business labelled ‘shoddy’

We are good at coming up with ideas for ebusiness projects, but we often lack the expertise or bravery actually to realise them, concluded a round-table of representatives from WH Smith, SAP and KPMG last week.

‘The British want to know all the answers before they make the leap. People still talk about the end game and there aren’t end games any more. Vodafone made a big leap of faith into mobile and no one could see that five years ago, but there are very few British businesses, depressingly, that have made those big leaps,’ said Alan Buckle, UK chief executive of IT consultancy KPMG.

Jeff Powell, IT director of WH Smith News, the wholesale and distribution arm of the retail company, emphasised the importance of having a management structure to drive the initial ebusiness idea through to implementation.

He cited his company’s own experiences in implementing an £18m SAP enterprise resource planning (ERP) system as a basis for its ebusiness activities.

‘We had a change of management structure. We had new members of the board coming in, so there were a lot of things happening over a short space of time, while we were making this vision and commitment. Without the backing of the board and the managing director, that would never have happened – but that’s not necessarily where it starts,’ he said.

KPMG’s Buckle said the best example he had seen of a company that combines vision with excellent execution is Virgin Mobile.

‘The first organisation we worked with, on a major project, from the initial new idea through to delivery, was Virgin Mobile. Someone like Richard Branson is capable of the big leaps but also a hell of a ruthless executioner when it comes to driving through the business plans,’ he explained.

‘The catalyst can come from outside but it has to be the guy at the top of the organisation who runs it, who picks it up and drives it. It’s about changing businesses,’ he added.

But Buckle also warned that getting the technology and infrastructure right is just as important as the vision.

‘You need the basic infrastructure in place and the ERP system to back it up. You have to be able to link the new system into your legacy. You must have the hardware platform behind that so that you can adapt and change as you move forward. The long one-year, two-year projects are gone now.’

Using the SAP system as a foundation, WH Smith News is part of a joint business-to-business (B2B) venture called Connect To You, which lets 24,000 retailers in the UK communicate online by giving them a direct link into the ERP system, all the databases and sales history, and order information.

The wholesaler is also in the early stages of looking at an e-procurement system.

This article first appeared in Computing.

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