A version of this article first appeared in eB-21, published 10 times a year in Europe by TBC Research. Based in London and San Francisco, TBC Research helps senior business professionals make more informed technology decisions through its magazine, research, and events portfolio.
My wife tells me that food labels are terribly important and getting more so, especially in the light of the great debate about genetically modified foods. From another sphere entirely, consider the value of fashion labels. The genuine article--as opposed to a counterfeit--represents a statement of some significance.
The IT industry is not exactly short of labels. It seems de rigeur for any marketing manager worth his or her salt to devise the latest combination of three or four letters as a verbal short-cut to describe a company's concept or gizmo. But hey presto, add the magic "e" prefix and you announce to the world that you are technologically with it. You brand yourself as Internet-savvy. You clothe yourself in the garments of new media and it becomes shorthand for "state of the art."
I suppose the idea is that whatever existed pre-e is old-fashioned, dated or dead and buried. Post-e is the only thing worth doing. Traditional commerce, my friends, must have been really boring. But don't worry--we now have e-commerce and that must be a whole lot better. Procurement might have been a posh word for buying things, but clearly must have been inadequate. Thank goodness we now have e-procurement, which obviously must be great. But beyond the smoke and mirrors that e-prefixes present there must be some substance.
It's only a couple of years since customer relationship management became widely understood as something all major suppliers should implement. Lo and behold it suddenly became CRM and, before you could say Tom Siebel, someone had added the e-prefix and made it sound like yet another whim of Easyjet. The eCRM frenzy has now reached such a pitch that it wouldn't be surprising to see your local newsagent offering eCRM applications along with the newspaper and pint of milk.
And yet, the e-prefixisation of the business world isn't quite as silly as it sounds. The communications revolution, with its amazing capacity to put anyone anywhere in touch with any information or any process, is indeed a profound gear change for the world economy. If we use e-business as the collective term to describe it, this is one big idea that will not evaporate once the sun comes out. But it must be backed up by efficient e-service.
When major companies realise that almost every process in their vast organisations can be re-engineered to work better and deliver more value by harnessing the latest technology, their world will change forever and there will be no going back. Organisations do not just have a handful of processes, they have thousands. This is what makes them all unique. And these processes are handled by people, with every organisation manifesting its own distinctive culture and values. These "soft" factors affect the way in which new technology can be introduced to a company and influence the way it works. So e-prefixing what you do may be a valuable way of describing the modernisation of certain processes.
I have no objection to it as a label to describe what's been done but what causes confusion is using the label prematurely. e-government may be a great slogan, but not even Alastair Campbell would claim that the present administration has taken anything but the most tentative steps towards the goal of web-enabling itself. Then there are the suppliers of software whose products suddenly acquire the e-prefix without a line of code being amended. It's a bit like an article of food carrying the label "organic" and adding the rider "or at least we will be in the next release but one".
So if e-business is here to stay, we need experts who can similarly help the rest of us recognise the real thing and learn how to distinguish the hype from the hope. And e-service will become the front line where a customer meets a company and first impressions are garnered. It will be the first point of contact, which will often determine whether the customer comes back to you or not--just as in the real world. Get e-service wrong and you may as well whistle in the e-wind.