Get wired or get retired

Dec. 21, 2004
Last chance for CEOs who still ignore the Net.

This is IWs CEO issue, so let me send a message to those CEOs who arent yet on the Internet themselves or, worse yet, havent steered their companies toward a digital future: Get wired or get retired.

That was the overriding message from speaker after speaker at IndustryWeeks "Competing at the Speed of Light" conference this month in Orlando. These speakers were no propeller-heads; in fact, they were CEOs and senior executives of well-established firms. Yet from supply-chain integration to collaborative product design, all of these companies are reinventing themselves and their industries via the Internet. Still not convinced? Lets review the typical excuses of CEOs who still ignore this powerful new source of productivity and profits:

Maybe it will go away -- Heres a quote from keynoter Don Tapscott, author of The Digital Economy, for CEOs who still think the Internet is a fad: "Its like were sitting on the beach saying, I wonder what kind of day were going to have? and theres a tsunami just over the horizon."

According to Chuck Kirk, CIO-customer experience for General Motors Corp., the worlds largest corporation is so convinced of the coming Internet revolution in auto sales that it is investing heavily in Web-based vehicle configuration and sales systems. In essence, customers will be able to go online, order their cars at prearranged prices with the options they want, and then take delivery at the dealerships of their choice. Think of the potential that GM has not only to improve one of the worlds worst customer experiences, but also to slash production and distribution costs by eliminating unneeded inventory.

Theres no way to project a return on investment for Internet-related projects -- Its hard to understand all a new technology can do before youve tried it, much less experimented a little. Its hard (and risky) to project ROI for new technologies -- but leading companies make the investment anyway. John Morgridge, chairman of Cisco Systems Inc., says he had no idea what the return on the companys new Web-based management system would be -- he just assumed it would pay dividends. So far, hes right: Ciscos new Web-based ordering system for customers is experiencing an annualized run rate of $3.2 billion in sales -- more than triple the companys expectations earlier this year.

We tried the Internet, but it didnt work -- Genentech Inc. director of commercial computing Jim Leonard answers that dodge with a story about a man who bought a chain saw after being promised that he could cut six cords of wood a day. Yet after he took the saw home, he could only cut a single cord of wood a day, no matter how fast or long he worked. So he returned to the store, where he confronted a clerk. "This saw was supposed to help me cut six cords of wood a day," he said. "But I can barely get through one." "Well, lets see what the problem is," replied the clerk, who then pulled the starter rope, firing up the saws powerful engine. The unhappy customer jumped back and shouted, "Whats that noise?"

The lesson, of course, is that a tool is only as smart as the people who use it -- and that the only way to get smart is to get on the Net and use it. According to Leonard, Genentech tried, failed a few times, then tried again until the company got it right.

That Internet persistence will make some firms -- and CEOs -- what well call winners in a new digital era. The companies that dont have it well call history. And to the CEOs who miss a golden Internet opportunity to reinvent their industries, well say:

Enjoy your retirement. Youve earned it.

Send e-mail messages to John Brandt at [email protected]

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