How urgent is this e-commerce thing?

The press is full of e-commerce this and e-commerce that. There is considerable talk about how e-commerce will restructure the economy with change sweeping through market after market. But, really, how urgent is it for a firm to develop its e-commerce strategy and tactics?

The good news is that it will be months or years before many firms will be forced to change. The bad news is that many firms will need even more months or years to get ready for the changes. This column is my explanation of the good and bad e-commerce news.

Any significant technology takes something like 20 years to go from the first

research glimmers in the lab to saturated acceptance in the market. The commercial use of Internet technology is about 10 years old, so we’re half-way to saturation. It’s now highly visible and its acceptance has begun to take-off, but penetration has not been uniform. It’s important to understand, on a market-by-market basis, the differing penetration rate of e-commerce.

There is a natural evolution of corporate e-commerce. It starts with providing information for customers on the firm’s Web site. The second stage sees the firm providing customer interaction, typically taking orders and answering questions. Third, the firm develops extensions to its current products and services. Finally, new offers will be developed, providing new combinations of goods and services, addressing the needs of new markets.

This progression from brochureware (passive information provision) to new

e-businesses will take considerably less than the broad 20 year pace of change. This mini-evolution within an industry typically takes less than 10 years. Within 10 years after the brochureware becomes common, the last potential market participants will need to have their new e-business offers available on the web. The real problems start to come up during the second stage.

On one level it sounds like a simple process: interact with customers on the Web to take orders, provide order status information and respond to product support queries. The real challenge is that this requires a level of customer intimacy that will be distinctly uncomfortable for many specialists in our organizations. Customer intimacy is great, but only if the new intimate experience is one that does not repel the customer.

And it’s not just intimacy. It’s also a growing customer expectation of a seamless experience in dealing with firms. Customers expect to deal with one firm, not a number of departments that are unwilling or unable to talk to each other. It may sound simple, but this integration issue was one of the major stumbling blocks on the path to enterprise resource planning. This process rips out the buffers which insulated departments from the concerns across different departments. Such insulation can be very comforting.

Offering positive customer intimacy and seamless customer experience will be a major challenge for many firms. How long you have depends on the current state of your market. If brochureware is now the norm in your industry, expect a growing demand for seamless intimacy in a few months or a very few years. The good news is that most firms will have months or years before they must provide that new level of customer service. The bad news is that the time required to deliver that service may exceed the time remaining.

E-commerce may not be a next month, or even next year, kind of thing. It’s not urgent, urgent! But it will be central to an often painful and essential move towards providing customer intimacy and a seamless customer experience. Not urgent, but very important. And making sure the important things get done is critical to long-term survival.

Dr. Fabian is director of the Internet Commerce and Technology Institute of Seneca College, located at Seneca@York (