The problem of knowledge gaps
Coping with technology
The scariest thing for most people contemplating setting up an e-business is the vast amount of technology involved.
Creating an e-business involves putting the right technical elements in place and getting them to function properly. How can this be done if most of the elements are a complete mystery and are far too complex to understand or to see how they fit together?
So, how much technology is involved? Is it reasonable to expect a CEO or an entrepreneur to have sufficient grasp of all the technical details involved in the creation of an e-business? What about professional solution providers or management project leaders? Should they be able to cope with all the technical issues involved in deciding and putting together a complete e-commerce package?
On a Web site I came across (http://dsite.net/webdevskills/) a New York student - Dora Chapman, who is contemplating making a career of Web development - had sensibly, tried to make an assessment of all the areas she would need to cover to become suitably proficient. By searching through all the job opportunity Web sites, she had made a list of most of the chief educational or experience requirements listed for Web site, design related positions. Her aggregate list came to over two hundred speciality areas of knowledge, any of which would need six months to two years of study and experience to become truly proficient.
Obviously, no mortal could be truly proficient in anything but a fraction of the specialities included in Dora Chapman's list. The best that could be hoped for is that a Web master had sufficient awareness of the various areas of knowledge and sufficient understanding to be able to bring in specialists when and where they are needed. However, even that assumes that somebody is sufficiently knowledgeable to be able to know how, when and where to apply the appropriate technology; this would necessitate the competent Web master needing also to be skilled and knowledgeable in business and marketing.
This creates the central problem for any e-business. It is just impossible for any single person to know all there is to know. This glaringly self evident fact will necessitate that the successful creation of any e-business system will have to depend upon the efficient interaction and cooperation of a number of quite different types of people.
This is more than just stating the obvious; it presents a problem unique to the Information Age. In the old economies of the twentieth century, technological aspects of a solution could be specified and partitioned off into neat little areas that could be allocated to appropriate specialists to deal with the problems in relative isolation. This is not possible in the fast moving world of digital communications Any e-business strategy would need to be intimately linked with all ongoing changes in competition and many different kinds of evolving technologies.
This is not a problem only for the business strategists, the experts and specialists themselves will have a similar problem to deal with within their own niches. They will each have to be intelligently aware of the changing competitive strategies of e-business to ensure that they are keeping up with the most appropriate technology. It is as easy for a specialist or technologist to waste precious time and resources pursuing a dead end technology as it is for an entrepreneur to lose money and time on an unsuccessful venture.
The seemingly obvious solution is for business people and technologists to work closely together to develop e-business solutions and strategies between them. But, this is easier stated than put into practice because it involves culture clashes that are not easily resolved.
What is happening in many instances is that this need to combine business acumen with technology is producing hopelessly inefficient ad hoc arrangements where costs and dependencies are killing many e-business ventures in the water. Major companies that are trying hard to break into the e-business field are often held to ransom by over paid Web masters who have created a screen of mystery over their activities in order to build impregnable power bases within the organisations.
It is not just the fault of the Web masters. In their hectic scramble to get into e-business as fast as possible, companies have been seizing the "bright young things" with knowledge of servers and networks and building businesses around them. It is not just the Web masters who have created their own ivory towers, the companies usually build it for them. What Web master wouldn't want to remain in this protected position where they are treated with respect and awe?
The Web masters are not fools. They are quite aware of their own limitations and in most cases are fully aware that they haven't complete knowledge. However, few will admit this and will do everything within their power to ensure that their Achilles heels are not exposed and will confine the technical scope of the company's activities to within their own limited range of knowledge; throwing up smoke screens all around to avoid being rumbled.
A similar situation exists with the specialist. The world of the expert programmer is becoming like the world of professional sports where prima donna programmers are switching in and out of teams, offering their services to the highest bidder. The sad fact is that many of these programmers are competent only within a narrow area and because their craft is regarded by non specialists as something akin to the black arts they are accorded inappropriate respect which give many of them a heightened sense of their own abilities.
Note: There is an excellent article by Michael Schrage on this subject of inappropriate dependency on technologist (ISSN 0015-8259 Vol. 141 No. 2 page 154 On The Job-CLMN- Brave New Work). It was put onto the Web by Northern Light Technology Inc at: http://library.northernlight.com/PN20000113240000125.html?cb=13&sc=0#doc
There is a well known axiom of successful business strategy that says if any person within an organisation becomes indispensable then they should be sacked immediately. This very sensible philosophy seems have been reversed in many instances, with some companies entering the field of e-business seeming to go out of their way to create such dependencies.
At a meeting I attended at the European head quarters of a major multimedia software house, a team of Web design specialist were putting on a demonstration. They were only young men, hardly out of college and they were demonstrating a front end to a Web site. The graphics were beautiful, the design novel and ingenious; the only problem was that it was totally impractical and in effect gave every visitor to the site a complicated puzzle to solve in order to find out how to use the facilities that were on offer. The whole complex arrangement had apparently taken them three months to design, yet, it did no more than a simple clickable list of options would have done - far more efficiently and effectively.
I thought no more of this until I was investigating the strategies of Venture capital companies. Their latest fad (early 2000) was the concept of incubation. This is where the venture capitalist provides not only working capital but also management expertise and business premises. It seemed highly altruistic until I found several companies doing something similar and realised that there was more to this arrangement than immediately meets the eye. The venture capitalists were setting up these arrangements because they wanted to have a team of Web design specialists in house so that they could tap into their expertise to make judgements on venture capital decisions. The logic being that this expertise on hand could pay for itself by taking on outside contractual work.
It was with some surprise then that I discovered that the team of naive young Web developers I'd seen at the multimedia company's headquarters had been selected for the incubator of a venture capital company. It made me wonder as to the quality of the investment decisions that would be coming out of that symbiotic arrangement. As far as e-business strategy was concerned it was very much the case of the blind leading the blind, even though it must have seemed to have made economic sense to all concerned.
The fundamental difficulty in getting a match between business and technology is that each does not appreciate the world of the other. The non technical business person holds the knowledge of the technical expert in too much awe and the technical expert is often so enamoured with their own importance that they feel they can make business decisions better than the experienced business people. This problem has a parallel in psychology studies.