Finding a Home for eBusiness

It has been over a decade and businesses are still struggling with the correct organizational alignment for eBusiness. The issue of “correct” organizational alignment is of tremendous significance to companies that are blending eBusiness into their business models.trans
“Pure plays” do not have this issue for obvious reasons. But how many real “pure plays” exist today? Most companies are, in the least, multi channel. Over the short term, a significant majority would convert to eBusiness as an integral part of their business model.


The move to eBusiness has come from both extremes i.e. “pure play” and “brick and mortar.” “Pure plays” started moving in the other direction as they realized that they have to be where their customers are and their customers did have lives and interests offline. “Brick and mortar” finally accepted that their customers did live online. They also understood that their business models would be demolished if they did not address the competitive threat from eBusiness enabled competitors and/or business opportunity provided by eBusiness.
“Pure plays” were entrepreneurial by nature and change comes naturally to entrepreneurs. Hence, they adapted, with relative ease, their operations, organization design and culture etc. to accommodate a blended business model. They also attracted “brick and mortar” employees who were amenable to change. The result is that their blended organizations are working in a more coordinated manner. This is not to say that they have got their organizational design right but only to highlight the fact that they are better positioned to do so.
“Brick and mortar” companies have had a tough time adapting to eBusiness. Their history and the complication it brings has made change difficult, indeed, insurmountable in some instances. They realize that eBusiness is critical to their success. However, they have not identified a way to leverage it correctly.
Unfortunately, time is running out for some of them. eBusiness is causing fundamental changes in even the most staid of industries. If organizations in these industries do not adapt they will find mention in history textbooks next to dinosaurs.
Since this problem is more pronounced and causes more difficulties in “brick and mortar” companies dabbling in eBusiness, the rest of the discussion focuses on these organizations and their travels and travails with this paradigm shift.
The history of eBusiness in traditional organizations
Companies tend to organize themselves along functional lines such as marketing, finance, operations, IT etc. This model has obvious benefits and limitations. The latter are even more pronounced when eBusiness is placed in a function within the existing organization structure.
Initially, the “responsibility” for eBusiness was within the marketing function. With the “business requirements” coming from marketing, IT was responsible for creating, hosting and managing “websites” i.e. the underlying applications and infrastructure.
Some organizations went a little further and created “new media” teams within marketing. These teams were focused on website creation using the new cool technologies and tools. These websites, or front-ends or user interfaces, were then hooked up with “traditional” back end systems by IT, which continued to host and manage them.
The understanding at that time was that eBusiness is about websites and websites were new media – interactive brochures created using new technologies. Further, eBusiness marketing was about buying banner advertising, hence marketing was the best place for advertising – online or offline. IT had the deep programming skills required to connect back end systems to these user interfaces, hence they continued to do that.
As time progressed, the model essentially remained the same but the rationale changed. The new justification was that eBusiness is about “online distribution” so the logical placement was once again within the marketing function.
As you can see, the functional mindset bundled and unbundled eBusiness “functions” differently but the focus was unmistakably on the new functions necessitated by eBusiness and their placement within existing organizational structure.
A few years ago, some organizations started distinguishing the eBusiness function from marketing function. They hired a “head of eBusiness” and their teams now had “online” skill sets – from creating websites to marketing them online. IT still maintained the hosting and management of the underlying applications and infrastructure.
Even under this new thinking the focus was still on functional placement for eBusiness. Some had this new combined function reporting to marketing. Some others, arguably more misguided than the others, had it under IT!
Does this paradigm work?
The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. How many traditional organizations are considered eBusiness powerhouses?

  • How many policies has Prudential or Metlife sold online? To my knowledge, none
  • How many policies has Progressive sold online? By one estimate 28% of auto insurance is now sold online. Progressive is a pioneer in this space and has a large percentage of that market. But the fact remains that
    • Progressive is a pioneer in non-traditional distribution. They also are pioneers in telephone sales
    • Progressive stands alone among its competitors in this staid industry with its eBusiness accomplishment

Why does this paradigm NOT work?
In order to understand the correct placement for anything, one has to understand what it is all about. The mistake companies made and continue to make is in not understanding what eBusiness is!
Here are a few myths about eBusiness:

  • eBusiness is about websites
  • eBusiness is about a new distribution channel
  • eBusiness is about online customer support
  • And last but certainly the most misguided, eBusiness is IT!

eBusiness is as much about websites as Albert Einstein was about his moustache. A website is a face to eBusiness.
eBusiness is as much about online distribution or customer support as the telephone was at the turn of the last century. If your company was in catalogue sales then you got the picture right. If not, you need to rethink the big picture.
And eBusiness is IT as much as marketing or supply chain or customer service or finance. IT is an enabler of business functions.
So, like the seven blind men, business leaders in “brick and mortar” companies continue miss the elephant in the room!
About the Author
Sourabh Hajela is a management consultant and trainer with over 20 years of experience creating shareholder value for his Fortune 50 clients. His consulting practice is focused on IT strategy, alignment and ROI. For more information, please visit Or feel free to contact Sourabh at [email protected] .

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