Managing the E-business Wild Card

Try this statement on for size: “Technology is the great enabler of e-businesses. Every day, it provides us with advances that make working with partners and customers easier. With each passing day, we find it harder to distinguish between our products and services, and the technology that enables them. Without the miraculous technologies developed over the past several years, few businesses would have before them the tremendous opportunities that their managers today contemplate.”

Now try this one: “Technology poses a constant threat within e-businesses. Every day, it somewhere asserts itself as a source of unpredictability. With each passing day, it becomes harder to distinguish between our companies and the critical technological structures that support them. Because of the complexity of technologies developed over the past several years, few businesses are beyond the reach of the catastrophic failures that their managers today contemplate.”

Both of these statements are arguably true. Ask any Cisco employee about the first. Ask the Fox-Meyer Drug bankruptcy trustee about the second. (Fox-Meyer was a US$5-billion company until it implemented a new enterprise-wide IT system.) In businesses that are technological in their essence, technology provides both the mechanisms of value creation and the potential levers of business destruction. As all of our businesses become e-businesses, we must all manage the e-business wild card that is technology.

Economists have long regarded new technology as an important source of uncertainty for all businesses. But businesses designed around new technologies seem to constitute a qualitatively different category.

An e-business executive recently made this point to me in describing his experiences with the vagaries of technology as he tried to get a new business up and running: “Two months into it, I’m on my hands and knees with the chief technology officer saying, ‘Please, please, how can we get this launched on time?’ None of that elegant business school [stuff] seemed relevant there. It was all about what we could get the technology to do.”

Another executive described a moment in her own experiences as an inevitable moment in the life of every e-business manager: “There’s that point, say two and a half months into the rollout plan, when the developer comes to you sheepishly and says, ‘Well, you know what? This is going to be a little harder than I thought.'”

These accounts seem to suggest that we might be wise to assume that something bad will pretty much always result from the complexity and fundamental unpredictability of the technology involved in an e-business project. Some may consider this a defeatist attitude, but it is, ultimately, merely practical.

IT professionals are often optimists, inclined to believe that what is possible will also be achievable. When things do not go according to plan, they are sometimes inclined to deny the severity or existence of problems. Managers accountable for on-time delivery may deny that their projects have encountered difficulties. These are human tendencies, but they are very, very dangerous in the e-business context. The severity of technology-based problems is often greatly multiplied by this kind of denial. How catastrophic the consequences of technological uncertainty are depends on how quickly a developer or manager comes forward to say, “This is going to be harder than I thought.”

A vital element of a culture where problems are admitted quickly is official recognition of the fact that being an e-business manager or employee means that you will often be wrong and that this will cause problems. An executive I know puts it this way: “For a team, what is very important is that you accept the fact that you’re going to be wrong. You have to avoid using the ugly spotlight, saying ‘how stupid’ and ‘why did you do this?’ It’s a very drastic change for some smart people. It means that every day you have to admit that you are wrong, and make corrections.”

The likelihood that people will quickly come forward with problems improves when we admit that technology-based problems are inevitable and not any-body’s fault. So go ahead and believe that technology is the great enabler of your e-business. But also profess publicly that technology poses a constant threat to your e-business. By loudly proclaiming the inevitability of your difficulties, you make it much less likely that those difficulties will remain hidden, festering, quietly growing to killer proportions.

Robert Austin is a Cutter Consortium Senior Consultant and Cutter Technology Council Fellow. He has been an Assistant Professor at the Harvard Business School since 1997, and prior to that was a technology planning and implementation manager for the Ford Motor operations. He has written on these subjects in academic and trade journals, and is the author of Measuring and Managing Performance in Organizations .