When the personal computer arrived in the early 1980s, most executives simply viewed it as a souped-up word processor and wouldn't have been seen dead using one. Just a few years ago, many had a similar attitude to the internet. But exponential growth in online activity has meant that, love it or loathe it, the internet can no longer be ignored. Should a chief executive get to grips with the internet personally, or delegate it, as with so many other tasks? Can you trust your marketing and IT people to keep you net-savvy, or should you limber up your mouse hand and get navigating?
The consensus seems to be that if you are not online by now, you are at risk of having your eye seriously off the ball.
'The internet poses a threat to current models of doing business,' says Michael Earl, professor of information management at London Business School.
'We are seeing new entrants, coming into different sectors, using the internet as a distribution mechanism - and that makes it a business strategy matter.' Dell Computer is one of the best examples of a company whose business has been transformed by the internet and it is already selling over $5 million of equipment a day using the medium. Its chief executive, Michael Dell, recently argued: 'The linkage of personal computers with network servers will change the very nature of our corporations.' He says it will blur traditional boundaries between supplier, manufacturer and customer, and flatten hierarchies.
Any chief executive who intends to seize the opportunities presented by the internet cannot flinch from the technical issues, says Earl. 'Once you have decided you want to carry out some important part of your business via the internet, you need to make sure that it is going to be completely robust. You need to know how secure your operations will be, and how scaleable it will be, and you need to know the right questions to ask,' he says.
Even if your company's internet involvement consists of no more than a corporate web site, top management must be in control, adds Phil Dwyer, managing director, Europe for Jupiter Communications, the research consultancy.
'Otherwise, it will be owned by geeks and you will end up with flaming logos,' he says.
Yet many top bosses still have a technophobic streak, says Richard Mellor, managing director and creative director of Hyperinteractive, the web-site company. Anthony Belchambers, the chief executive of the Futures and Options Association, had his PC removed by his operations chief, Lucinda Campbell-Gray. 'I eventually took it away from him,' she says. 'It was covered with a film of dust and used only as a place to stick his Post-It notes.' Belchambers is certainly not alone but, Mellor says, this needs to change. 'A chief executive should have a modicum of authoritative knowledge, if only to communicate in the language of the internet, and to understand what the opportunities are,' he says. 'The marketing department can't convince the chief executive unless he or she understands what they are talking about.'
The claim of many that the internet is not relevant to their business hardly stacks up. 'At the moment, it is far more important to international businesses than it is for a small local business,' says Ray Wild, principal of Henley Management College. 'But things are moving very quickly, and what is possible now was not possible a year ago.' Audio communications, in the form of internet telephony, is one such tool that is likely to take off this year but, says Wild, all managers should be using e-mail at the very least.
The moral of the story? Remain web-shy at your peril but don't get carried away, warns Mellor: 'The internet is a highly seductive medium. Once you get going, it's hard to stop, and chief executives could easily find that it distracts them from their main responsibilities.'.