Net competitors

E-commerce is no passing phase. It is a paradigm shift that will affect the way everyone does business. And, as more and more organisations make the connection, consultancies are reaping the benefits.

Nick Griffin, partner in charge of management solutions at Deloitte & Touche, says: ‘The market has really turned a corner in the last six months. It is no longer just about having a website, a presence on the Internet. We are seeing a lot of concern among our clients about how to get into the market before they get left behind.’ He adds: ‘There is a lot of activity from new entrants with ideas, wanting to break into the market as .coms, and large numbers of existing businesses which feel they have to do it because they feel threatened by the start-ups.’

The two types of clients have different needs, he says. ‘The new entrants want a blend of three things: a technical solution to get into the market; a commercial solution to make the proposition work; and a financial solution to provide funding for it.’

The existing businesses, on the other hand, already have funding and a lot of technology in place. ‘They want to know how they can take advantage of the Internet.’ Increasingly, these organisations are setting up businesses in parallel, says Griffin, which become like start-ups.

Mike Hagan, an associate director focusing on e-business at systems integrator CMG, agrees. ‘A lot of companies think that the only way they can transform themselves quickly enough and compete with the lightweight .coms is to spin off a separate company.’

It?s not all about strategy, however. ‘E-business is a front-end to traditional type services,’ says Griffin. ‘There is a great need to get very robust systems in place. Stock systems, for example, have to be very accurate and robust if you are allowing customers to connect to them.’ He adds: ‘ERP was the big issue yesterday but now there is much more emphasis on Customer Relationship Management and the supply chain fulfilment side.’

Quentin Prideaux, managing consultant in CSC?s e-business strategy group, agrees. ‘Many companies set up fairly basic websites two years ago, not really knowing what to put on them. Now they are looking to upgrade these. And they are realising that back office systems have to be linked with commitments made on the web, if they are going to cope with the huge numbers of contacts made.’ The web, says Prideaux, allows external optimisation?links with suppliers and customers, and links sideways with companies that are part of the same value chain. ‘It is now possible for a whole industry to optimise itself, which may mean that one part of it has to spend more money in order that more profit is realised somewhere else.’

CSC is very busy. ‘We are able to be selective about our opportunities,’ says Prideaux. Clients are looking for help at all levels, he says, from what they should be doing as a result of all this change, through to what they can do to make their existing systems perform as they would like.?Speed is recognised almost universally as very important, combined with an awareness of the breadth of opinion and degrees of understanding of e-business within organisations. This creates management issues as well as implementation issues,’ says Prideaux.

CMG?s Hagan has noticed a change in the client mindset. ‘Of late many business managers have become a lot more mature in terms of their understanding of the whole e-business market. They understand the need to make their organisation e-business enabled and that it is not just about putting together a website but about working out how to re-engineer their critical business processes to take advantage of what the Internet has to offer.’ Organisations are also keeping an eye of emerging technologies, such as Wireless Application Protocol, which enables people to make Internet transactions over the phone.A more holistic approach to e-business, he says, is throwing up lots more challenges for both client and consultant. ‘We need to have consultants who are very experienced in e-business models, rather than just in building websites, middleware or specific products,’ he says. Experience of legacy systems is also useful.

Prideaux agrees. ‘Because e-business affects the whole organisation the ability to span all parts is becoming more important. We are looking for a broader set of skills to cope with the range of changes that clients are going through.’ Not surprisingly, suitable candidates are hard to find. Says Nicolas Mabin, director of recruitment at Ernst & Young: ‘It is a very short market?there are few at the cutting edge.’

E&Y is recruiting across the range at the moment, in strategy, architecture, design, implementation and operation, says Mabin. ‘We need to increase the numbers of people we have at all stages of the e-business revolution. Given the level of client demand, we know we haven?t got enough of the right resources and will continue to recruit very strongly over the coming months.’The firm is also focusing on retraining and upskilling existing consultants. Says Mabin: ‘We are rolling out a programme called Connect!Now, which is about turning ourselves into a .com and getting people to understand both the strategy and tactics of how to be effective in the connected economy.’Mabin emphasises the all-pervasive influence of e-business. ?We don?t see it as a separate activity?we see it as infusing every aspect of what we and our clients are doing,’ he says.

Deloitte & Touche is also investing pretty heavily in training and reskilling programmes and recruitment, says Griffin. ?We have to fight quite hard for people in technical areas, who know what they are worth,’ he says. ‘We have a high demand for process consultants who understand how to rework supply chain, CRM specialists and ERP consultants, particularly in JD Edwards (a vendor alliance).’

Interestingly, Griffin says that the firm?s track record comes into play here. ‘The market is so new that everyone is finding their way. Clients want to know what you have done before and where. They are looking for names they recognise. You can talk forever about the skills you have and so on but it really comes down to track record. For us that?s applicable to both winning business and recruitment.’

Mary Huntington is a freelance journalist

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