Growing rather than planning solutions
A serious communication problem
The difference in approach between Industrial Age and Information Age strategies creates a serious communication problem when Industrial Age thinkers have to use Information Age technology. The most serious problem is the acceptance of a degree of ignorance.
In the worlds of Industrial Age business and commerce, it is possible for specialists and bright executives to have a reasonably complete knowledge of all the technicalities their professional roles entail. They can justifiably claim to be experts. This is not the case in the world of the Information Age. All specialists, executive managers and experts have incomplete knowledge. This unavoidable state of affairs is very hard for Industrial Age planners to come to grips with.
Having written two technical books on multimedia programming strategies, I am considered to be somewhat of an expert, even among some of the experts. The truth is I feel completely fraudulent in this role. My narrow area of technological knowledge has thrust me deep into a world of the experts and far from allowing me to feel knowledgeable it makes me feel woefully inadequate. My expertise in one area has exposed me to all the other expert areas that I know little or nothing about.
This came home to me after a meeting of Web building specialist that I attended at the offices of a major player in the IT world. A few of us finished off the day with a few beers and a chat at a local English pub. Immediately the conversation became quite technical as the specialists began to talk about some of the practical issues involved in creating Web sites. I could only barely follow the conversation, particularly as they kept using the initials of the various software techniques and programs they were dealing with.
I expressed my awe at the amount of expertise that they all had. To my surprise, everyone else had the same feeling: they were all in awe of each other. The ensuing conversation revealed that everyone was aware that they were existing in a make believe world where everyone had to pretend to know much more than they really believed they did. Once this came out, some amazing stories started to be told. Sales people agreeing designs with a client and instructions going out to designers only to find all kinds of problems occurring after the product is delivered. Inferior products being delivered based upon the fact that the client wouldn't know they were inferior.
They told stories of high flying companies that had gone from start up to employing a hundred or more designers and programmers in just a few months; their managers living in a constant state of nervous tension because they were swamped by all the technological problems. They talked of the difficulties in getting competent staff and the ridiculous amount of knowledge being asked for by some companies in the CVs of applicants.
The head of a technical division of a large e-commerce solution provider told of his interviewing techniques. "You know they can't have all the knowledge they claim to have in their CVs", he said. "I place them in three categories. The first is when they come in and tell you they find it easy to write in all the computer languages and can use all the technical authoring tools with ease. Every technical issue you ask them about they will tell you they find it easy. The second type is where every special area of technicality you ask them about they tell you it is too complex for them to handle. I go for the third type, who come in and readily admit they are not very proficient in the technical areas you ask them about but have read about them somewhere and seem to want to expand their knowledge in those areas." This developer told us he didn't take any notice of what people told him they could do because everyone lied; he was more interested in their approaches and attitudes, looking for those who appeared to be keen and interested in exploring new avenues.
All gave similar stories of a world where everyone was in a constant state of incomplete knowledge; where people learned on the job; the management driving by the seat of their pants to fulfil impossible client expectations. Most surprising of all, nobody seemed convinced that any of the projects they had worked on was in any way a commercial success for their clients. They all agreed that the vast majority of e-commerce success stories seemed to be coming from the entrepreneurial start ups that had built into a situation. Rarely did it come from the kind of clients who pre planned e-commerce solutions and then contracted out the plans for the technologists to build according to the instructions.
This was confirmed by my friend Ebidie Hacker, who was called in by a leading advertising agencies in New York to sort out a Web site for a Fortune Top 500 company. He wrote, telling me:
" ...this guy throws me into a site, OK it's a tiny, 8 page site and it is all templates, pre-designed. But there was nothing there! There was a vague, inconsistent idea and a couple of pieces of badly written copy on paper. That was the site. To help me they assigned one part time, oversensitive, unprofessional, copywriter who not only tried to do things his own way but at one point actually changed and deleted my edits!
I had one part-time coder who had a full time day job. I hired him because my boss said I needed a part time coder! It turns out I didn't need a coder because the coding doesn't happen for another month, what I needed was a layout graphics person. So the coder tells me he can do it, no problem, but it turns out that he really can't!
So I am trying to convince the client that everything is under control and cool, when, in fact it is a nightmare! But somehow I am making my deadlines and deliverables and getting good work out of these people. I also hired one more person in the very beginning on one day's notice to bail me out because no one had told me when I got on board that there was a deliverable in two days!
My boss had told me that her production manager would be doing the production so I wasn't very worried, but guess what? She was on some emergency priority project and I was left in the cold. My part-time coder, turned art director, said he would hire a part time graphic designer to help him out, and that he had someone, so I relaxed. Guess what? He never hired her! Last minute I hire someone, on one day's notice to bail me out again. I get the guy and it is all set up. Well I tell my boss and she forbids me to work with him because she happens to know him and hates him!
The coder quits---right before a deliverable to the client! I would have been completely screwed and thrown off the project. I use every bit of charm and psychological insight I could muster and convinced him to see me through that deliverable and then leave. He is completely stressed out.
Anyway, I could go on...but you get the idea. I never once complained or blamed anyone at all. I said everything was going fine and I just pulled it all together by sheer will power and by working insane hours.
Ebidie's email describes the way many highly respected companies are handling Information Age projects for clients. There is now a huge industry grown up on the back of the hysterical demand to get into e-commerce, mostly feeding on ignorance. Businesses are targeted and offered routes into the Information Age. High pressure salesmen will get a company interested in the possible advantages of Web sites.
They seldom talk about a strategy for the core business, they'll talk about a Web site as if they were going to build a broadcasting station for the targeted company. They'll provide examples of stunning graphics, clever animations, interactive shopping and ordering systems.
Once they have the client hooked, they can hit them with all the technicalities:
Ftp facilities for clients to download animated demonstrations, information brochures, demos and software
Software for streaming audio and video support
Utilisation and supply of special server plug-ins
Intelligent database management systems
Software that generates web pages dynamically
Sophisticated customer service
Programmes for handling a growing and rapidly changing product catalogue
Software for Customer tracking
Software that will identify repeat customers
A system for remembering a specific customer's buying patterns
A method of targeting particular customers with appropriate advertising and special offers
Facilities for running manufacturer audio and videos
Secure ordering software
A search engine
An encryption scheme
Programs for presenting and processing forms
Custom designed CGI scripts
The list can be made endless
Sounds impressive doesn't it, yet, all this information can be obtained from the Web. I got it from some excellent white papers written by Bruce Baikie - Strategic Alliance Manager - IP Network Services - SunTelco - Sun Microsystems, Inc. These papers explain in simple language all you need to know for an overview of Server Technology, Web hosting and Internet Service Provision. The papers were written to assist software and hardware buying decisions for Web Hosting and Internet Service Providers, but, they also provide an excellent sales pitch for the less than scrupulous e-commerce solution providers.
When the client sees the impressive list of technology that needs to be brought to bear in building a commercial Web site they will be in awe. They will be convinced that having a Web site will take them into the big time. The more money they are charged the more sure they will be that this expenditure will take them into a new big league that only the big hitters can survive in. After all, who but the big players could afford to harness all the technical expertise necessary for building a Web site? They'll willingly shell out obscene amounts of money to get into this game.
The problem is, in shelling out all the money, the industrial age accountants will want too see a solid plan to justify the expenditure. So, they are given a plan: a string of Christmas tree lights. It looks pretty, but, they are seldom warned that there may be quite a few faulty bulbs when it is delivered. More often than not, they end up buying an expensive can of worms for their money. Instead of a cash cow they get a money sink, an expensive folly that is continuously eating up funds and producing very little in the way of actual business results.
Those listed items listed above are only some of the more obvious divisions. Less obvious are the subtleties involved with the types of server facilities that might be needed to be taken care of. Decisions have to be made about: the amount of server disk space required; system back-up facilities; record storage and analysis; bandwidth; special server scripts and dedicated programs. It may seem logical to pre-plan these factors but there are too many areas to get wrong, or worse: slightly wrong. Like the lady with her bottom up house building, these decisions are best made one at a time, while a system is up and running.
Compounding all these problems will be the reality that people visiting a Web site will be using a huge variety of different computers to access the site. They will be using different browsers: different versions of browsers and different computer operating systems. To attempt to provide for all these inherent difficulties and at the same time run a credible marketing strategy puts the most complex of Christmas tree light problems into the shade. If the system under performs who will be able to put the finger on what is going wrong? Where do you look when everyone is putting the blame for under performance onto others?
The uncertainties involved in e-business and e-commerce make it absolutely essential to have the hosting facilities as flexible as possible. With the rapidity of technological change it would be folly to be locked into one set of hardware or a single hosting solution. The server hosting can be divided up between a number of different server hosts. Even though it may involve a number of different hosting companies separated by continents, the separations will only be a link click away and totally transparent to clients or customers. Like the lady building her house with transporters, why put all the rooms on the same plot?
Trusting the design of a complete system to a single contractor runs the risk of being stuck with them for at least a very long time. Who'd want to look into the complexity if the system underperforms? A company could be dead in the water before they have either the courage or the finance to replace an inferior consultant or contractor.
To be totally realistic, nobody should expect anyone to be able to plan a complete e-commerce solution. It needs a risk spreading strategy. E-commerce projects have to be put together one module at a time. The modules have to be duplicated and given to different competing specialists so that the best of a choice can be used. Like the newsagent's paper delivery boys and girls, all experts and contractors should be easily replaceable and expendable.
This needn't apply only to large installations. In an e-commerce talk group, a student, Katy Cartee, described how her Internet Service Provider had tried to bump up the charges because her site had become so busy and was using too much bandwidth. She'd explained how she'd overcome the problem by taking advantage of the free web space being offered by some promotional companies. She'd used her main site as a simply a portal, a front door that contained links to all her free sites. These contained the bulk of her site content, spreading the bandwidth over a number of different free servers.. Like the lady building the imaginary house, Katy was no expert. Here's an email from her when she was reading the draft chapters of this book in the virtual cafe:
Well, I'm reading this from an entirely different perspective than most of you I'm sure. I'm a college student and have had no experience on the workings of businesses. But I have been around the net (or the "digital world") for almost 3 years now and many of the points made are very real. Things are changing at an incredible rate of speed!
I started out on the web chatting and surfing my way around it - back when the net was still quite young. From there I became interested in making my own web page. It started out very simply as a fan site (of 80's cartoons) and continued to grow for 2 more years until it was a huge archive of pictures, sounds and information.
I was getting so much traffic that I was forced to disassemble it and spread it around several servers! I looked at other 80's cartoon sites on the net, and wondered why they were not encountering the same problems as me - and the fact is, they weren't moving fast enough. I started out with simple wav files of theme songs for people to download. But as soon as I became aware of Real Audio technology, I researched it and put it into use on my site.
It seems that most people see a technology like Real Audio and think, "That's too complicated or expensive...I'd never be able to do that myself" and don't even try! And so they stay in the "dark ages" of the www. In the world of e-commerce, you have to take chances...and you have to realize that you don't know all there is to know. You have to be willing to seek out new technologies and implement them.
I like the idea of starting out with a green frog and seeing what it turns into. That's essentially what I did with my site - I started from the bottom - up. When I began, there was NO way I could have known what it would be like 2 years from then. If someone had come to me and said "In two years you're going to be utilizing a scanner, digital camera, and real audio technology" I would have responded "What are those?"
There's no way you can 'plan' for those kind of changes. Like you said, you start out with something simple, then change it as your desires and needs change. I guess the only thing to watch when using this strategy is to be careful of letting it getting out of hand - or too 'messy.' That's another problem I ran into. Since I started small and kept building on top of that, by the end it was so extensive that you could easily get lost in it. But part of that was just that I didn't have the time to sit down and think about it's organization too carefully - with a business, I'm sure you'd take the time.
Katy's approach is the way all the pathfinders are leading the way on the Internet. They are not planning. They are just getting onto the Web and building upwards and outwards. They are learning about new things by looking at other Web sites, other e-business and e- commerce solutions. If something looks interesting and they don't know how it is done they ask on an Internet discussion group. Almost certainly they will be able to get answers, or, referrals to Web sites where answers can be obtained. And, if required, be given contact names and email addresses of relevant experts and specialists.
At first sight the technical complexity of an e-commerce project may seem overwhelming. But, is it? Consider the scenario of the client building her house using a bottom up design strategy. She doesn't have to have any technical expertise: all that is handled by experts. She doesn't even have to make the decisions and choices. These are made for her by the observations she makes and listening to friends and family. All she has to be pretty good at is communicating with people. But, there again, so do all the other people involved in the project.