Every manager is having to think and act faster in the new internet economy. Love it or hate it, you have to operate in e-time.
Q: Why is speed so critical in the e-business economy?
A: The key investment in most e-businesses is intellectual capital rather than dollars, and that means people's time. Product cycles are shortening. First-mover advantage can be great in many e-businesses, because of reach, network effects, scaleability, stickiness, market momentum and so on. The technology lets you or your competitors compress time and distance - WalMart took 30 years to go international, Amazon was global instantly.
I'm experiencing this myself, working with a software company in Seattle. A long-term plan is the next four quarters; a detailed operational plan is the next quarter. Missing one week's sales plan is traumatic - strategies and product priorities change, and partnership deals are struck in half-hour meetings.
Q: Haven't we had disruptive technologies before?
A: Yes, but most technology leaps have quite a narrow impact. They hit a particular industry, like mini-mills in steel production or 747s in air travel. They hit small user groups, like DOS for IT programmers; they hit large but narrow needs, like cars or VCRs. Or they're invisible to end users, buried inside a business or simple interface, like retail EDI (electronic document interchange) and OCR (optical character recognition). They often consist of one big leap then a new stability, so you can catch your breath.
Q: What makes the Internet era so different?
A: Disruption from e-stuff is all-pervasive - hitting almost every industry and group of individuals, radically and simultaneously. It is re-defining business and consumer needs, how businesses function and compete and how they win or lose customers. The technology is still today the product, with its inner workings and frustrations right in your face. Worst of all, the technology and the competitive scene continues to change at a ferocious pace.
Q: OK, I'm suitably paranoid. How do I get on to e-time?
A: Make decisions faster, implement them faster and follow up progress more frequently. Throw away old managerial crutches: lengthy debate, lofty but abstract goals, prevarication and over-analysis. Here are some e-time KPIs (key performance indicators - if you know what a KPI is, you're old economy).
Behaviour in management meetings. When you're about to say: 'We've thrashed that around enough, let's discuss it again next time', don't - nobody leaves the room until the decision is made. If more data is needed, get it there and then. After that, is any more input likely to improve the decision?
Q: What about timeframes?
A: E-timers compress action and delivery timetables. They break down targets, action plans and progress reviews into small, bite-sized chunks of time: weekly rather than monthly targets, quarterly not annual financial plans.
Q Q: So action over analysis?
A: Don't waste time over-analysing or over-preparing. Get the salesforce out on the street; don't call in consultants to analyse the sales process for six weeks. Accept that software and e-business pricing can't be well analysed before launch - get something out in the market, see what works, then respond.
Q: Doesn't that mean running before walking?
A: E-timers over-commit to customers then find a way to deliver (remember Microsoft and IBM?). They do deals on a handshake and start implementing, then back-fill the contract details. Their organisations always protest: 'But we're not ready!'
Q: Haven't I heard some of these prescriptions before, in the pre-Webassic Age?
A: A fair cop. Some of these KPIs sound straight out of the mid-1980s and In Search of Excellence - particularly that book's praise for 'a bias towards action'. And BCG's George Stalk wrote a great article in Harvard Business Review 10 years ago called 'Time: the next competitive weapon'. Stalk argued then that the shortening product cycles were making time-to-market more critical than scale, cost position etc.
Q: Is there just a possibility that e-time managers are really just headless chickens with mobile phones?
A: The internet hasn't suddenly increased the average brain-cell count in the business world (wirefree access may actually be burning them away). So speed and frantic action can be a cover for poor strategy and poor decision-making.
But the bottom line, of course, is that companies operating on e-time have been the most prolific and fastest creators of billion-dollar businesses in history. The bubble may deflate, but it won't burst.
Andrew Wileman is a strategy and organisation consultant; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.