E-business beyond the buzzword

Michael T. Burr,

Editor

The current trend toward adding an “e-” before everything is one of my biggest pet peeves. It`s almost, but not quite, as annoying as dinnertime sales calls, … or anything else that interrupts dinner.

But I digress. Companies are so eager to take advantage of the e-business craze that they are over-using the term to the point where it has ceased to have meaning. It`s like the “solutions” plague that swept the software industry. The buzzword latched itself onto every software system on the market, and soon it infected hardware systems as well. Now everything is a solution. It`s enough to make me drive my transportation solution off a bridge, … er, chasm-spanning roadway solution.

But I digress again.

Recently someone asked me, quite reasonably, “Where did the whole `e-` thing start?” Which got me thinking: what does “e-” really mean, anyway?

The “e-” prefix stands for “electronic,” and thus anything that uses a semiconductor might be lumped into the “e-” category. But that`s not very useful, is it? Surely the term has more meaning than that.

In some particularly heinous cases of marketing excess, the “e-” prefix is virtually meaningless. But e-business is a real phenomenon, and it`s becoming a mindset in many industries, not just utilities.

E-business covers everything from e-mail to e-CRM (customer relationship management). E-billing is the hot trend today. As a greater share of Americans gain access to the Internet, online delivery of services is becoming more important. While most products can`t actually be delivered via the web, most of them can be ordered and billed via the Internet, and online customer service offers a new way for companies serve their customers more effectively.

Notice, by the way, that I said nothing about saving money. Eventually, in most cases, e-business will indeed save money. But in the short term, it`s likely to cost more-both in capital expenditures and operating costs. Experience shows that customer phone calls increase, not decrease, when companies go live with their online customer service systems. This represents a temporary spike in technical questions and complaints as both the bugs are worked out of the system and users become familiar with its operation.

Also, adoption rates for e-billing are pretty dismal so far-less than 10 percent for retail customers who are offered the option. And these rates won`t improve much until e-billing becomes a standard for virtually all recurring billers. From the customer`s point of view, being able to pay one-third or even half of his bills online is not much of an incentive, and the hassle of setting it up has been enough of a deterrent to keep people licking stamps.

E-billing for retail customers will turn the corner only when two things happen: 1) a majority of billers get their electronic bill presentment and payment (EBPP) systems up and running, and 2) a majority of consumers get online and use it regularly. So far both events seem a long way off.

In late February Vice President Al Gore threw down a campaign gauntlet of bringing the Internet to every U.S. household by the middle of the decade. He said the concept of universal telecommunications needs to be re-defined to include Internet access.

“A chicken in every pot” has given way to “a browser in every den.” It`s ironic how our ideas of basic necessities have evolved. Or regressed. I`m not sure which.

At any rate, this lofty and impractical goal suggests an inevitable future. Someday, and probably before too long, nearly every household in America with a telephone or a TV will be online. At that time-presuming billers get their EBPP acts together-e-billing will transform bill payment in the same way that e-mail has transformed the way people and companies communicate.

In a word, e-billing is the Internet`s next “killer app.”

Another killer app lurking on the horizon, however, is the e-market. Forrester Research expects e-marketplaces to handle $266 billion in online energy sales by the year 2004. But that`s only the tip of the iceberg. For every online transaction, there are two or three companies that might be able to do business with other products. E-marketplaces will transform business-to-business procurement in the same way as e-mail and e-billing are transforming their functions.

Put these pieces of the puzzle together with workforce automation, geospatial information systems, eCRM and sophisticated supply chain management systems, and e-business is a truly revolutionary trend.

While the “e-” marketing plague might be annoying, the e-business phenomenon is enabling utilities to streamline operations and achieve levels of service quality beyond anything they`ve imagined. Or should I say “e-magined”?

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