Builder Digs Into E-Biz Future

New job post's goal: Excavate for high-tech gems.

Talk about backbreaking work.

Three years ago, the job of moving technical data and manuals for bulldozers onto an extranet seemed as mammoth as the earth-moving equipment itself. Yet today, Keith Sanderson figures that, compared with the bigger task now facing him—remodeling Komatsu America International Co. into an e-business—that extranet project, even at 13.4GB of data spanning some 207,000 pages, was a featherweight.

What are the real forklift benders facing Sanderson in his new role? Trying to identify which technology partners will be left standing after the economy stops shaking. Unearthing the return on investment on wireless tools for the companys sales force. Testing the foundations of what might turn out to be jury-rigged business-to-business marketplaces. And perhaps, above all else, evangelizing Net technologies to business unit leaders who can be charitably described as skeptical.

These are uncharted territories that encompass cutting-edge technology. So it made perfect sense when management at the construction equipment manufacturer, based in Vernon Hills, Ill., decided four months ago that it needed a new type of executive to help it navigate the terrain. Thus was Sandersons role created. He was plucked from his position as Web development manager to become director of e-business strategic planning and charged with coordinating e-business technology projects—such as adding online financing tools to the companys customer-facing Web site—among business units and evangelizing those projects to their heads. He was also put in charge of identifying investment targets among companies developing technology tools and services for the construction industry.

The shift in responsibilities between Sandersons current and former jobs reflects whats new in the Komatsu America e-business enterprise: namely, the need to look outside to find out how the Internet can help the company better serve customers and partners while also preparing it to move into new markets. The shift also reflects the companys emerging need for executives with the skills to tie disparate technology projects together to support the companys overarching business strategy goals—a need that experts say is being felt at all e-businesses.

"The people in this type of job, where the focus is on strategic planning for e-business goals, are risk-takers—theyre pioneers," said David Foote, managing partner at Foote Partners LLC, a consultancy in New Canaan, Conn. "These are people who are good at solving the puzzle of which should be the top IT and business strategy priorities for building an e-business." As technology investments become more crucial, companies are increasingly appointing executives to focus solely on planning them, Foote said.

Sanderson does see himself as something of a pioneer—after all, the job didnt exist before he stepped into it. And while the untested grounds inherent in e-businesss newly created job roles can be daunting, the situation still has its upside. "Its nice in some ways that theres no predecessor to be compared to," Sanderson said.

New-job description

The new focus on big-picture planning is a major shift from Sandersons previous responsibilities. The Web development manager post required him to spend hours on the phone with distributors, determining how Komatsu America could help them effectively market its products and build customized marketing and sales training packages. Today, as e-business strategic planning director, he spends much of his time listening to pitches from technology product and service vendors and B2B marketplaces angling for a piece of a $30 million investment pie.

Another of Sandersons duties is to stay in close contact with operation-unit heads as the $2.3 billion company enters the small-scale construction equipment market. Selling new types of equipment such as miniexcavators to much smaller customers, such as landscaping businesses, requires the company to solve the problem of how to reduce the cost of sales to smaller customers, he said.

One of the toughest parts of the new job is getting buy-in from those unit heads, whose departments hed like to haul into the future. A big part of the problem is that theres no way to gauge return on investment on unproven, untested technology, as, for example, with the wireless tools hed like to put into the hands of the sales force. "There are still people I have to work with, inside and outside the company, who dont really get how the Internet will impact what we do," Sanderson said.

But heres where Komatsu Americas ability to move mountains shines. By picking Sanderson, the head of the completed extranet project, to lead e-business project coordination and evangelization, the company gets across the idea that unproven technology can pay off in a big way. Within a few months, the extranet wound up saving the company $1 million in paper printing costs.

And that, Sanderson said, makes the case that the Internet is ground-breaking technology.