An E-Business Forecast

Customercentric model is top priority

The customer is king, or at least he will be if the near future plays out the way i-managers expect. "We are focused on meeting our customers needs and doing what can we to satisfy them," said Bob Reiner, manager of enterprise Internet services at State Farm Insurance in Bloomington, Ill. "The next generation [of Internet technology and strategy] coming up will have a dramatic impact."

For State Farm customers, that will mean things like the ability to make contact with the company at any point of entry and get the same, up-to-date information. "They will be able to come in through an 800 number or the Internet or by contacting an agent," Reiner said. "Our goal is to spread data across the enterprise, so that the call center and the agent and the Web site work as a well-oiled machine."

This quarter, State Farm is rolling out online tools for rate quotes, claims, and purchasing and changing policies.

Many of the top trends for the future identified in the I-manager survey deal directly with customer access and service — including customer relationship management, universal real-time access to data, better user interfaces and personalization — or will support the customercentric model in some way — including broadband, voice-over-Internet Protocol and wireless access. All will require some work before they begin to pay off on the bottom line.

One challenge facing many large enterprises as they push business onto the Internet is getting all their parts to work together. "Were a complex business that is an amalgamation of many companies, and we have two different groups of customers," said Gary Dowdy, vice president of e-business at Cardinal Health, in Dublin, Ohio, which already does $1.5 billion in business over the Internet. "We want to have one Cardinal approach, to present one Cardinal to all of our customers, but to do that, we need to first do things like extending adequate security to our heterogeneous software environments."

Cardinal is focused for the next few quarters on using enterprise application integration tools to tie together its back-end systems, Dowdy said. "Were creating a common infrastructure that can move information without knowing what the back end is." Hes less interested in one of the trendier technologies — wireless — at least in the near term.

Wireless was the most popular choice as an up-and-coming technology in the survey, but Dowdy questioned the rate at which it will actually be adopted. "Were looking at it, but it is not a priority," he said. "There is a question of expense vs. benefit. Our customers would benefit, but can they afford the devices needed to generate ROI [return on investment]? Security is another issue. Wireless is the next big thing, but its mostly hype right now."

As important as any technology to the development of an I-managers plans will be the continued development of a culture that can support e-business processes. "Process is job No. 1 into the future," Dowdy said. "Its not just about buying technology; its change management and behavior modification. Now youre into human psychology, and thats more complex."

Said Reiner: "Our seniormost management is involved in the cultural issues, and we have avoided getting stuck in the muck and mire of middle management, but there are still pockets of disbelievers that need to buy in."

One other thing about the future: It may not get here quite as fast as once expected. In the post-dot-com world, doing things yesterday is out and doing things right is in. "Our mantra is to learn quickly, think big, start small and scale fast," Reiner said. "We are taking an incremental and methodical approach, and we have a lot of other priorities as well — they are all customer-facing, but they may involve areas other than the Internet."