Business Technology: Reality Check: What Business Are You In?
With signs of business activity beginning to pick up a bit, it seems like a good time to return to a question--actually, a series of questions--that is a central theme of not only this column but also all of InformationWeek. And that is, what business are you in today? A number of macro-level forces are exerting considerable pressures and stresses on businesses these days as they attempt to adjust to the new reality of pursuing growth with fewer employees, more-demanding customers, heightened levels of compliance and regulatory issues, greatly intensified foreign competition, elevated security concerns in the physical and cyber worlds, and the lingering specter of a false recovery.
In such a complex environment, it can be more than a little challenging to be able to declare clearly and simply what business you're in. But I would again suggest that that's only the first step, and that three more follow-up questions are imperative: In 12 months, what business will your customers want you to be in? And in 24 months, what business will your customers DEMAND you be in? And finally, is your company nimble and agile enough to move at a pace that will let you change to meet the evolving requirements of those customers?
In 1258, the Mongol general Hulegu, a grandson of Genghis Khan, sacked Baghdad, killing 800,000 people ... This month, the Mongolians returned to Iraq. Ferried into the country on American military transports, 180 Mongolian Army soldiers--all male, all volunteers--are guarding pipelines and working on construction projects under a Polish command.
-- The New York Times, Sept. 25
Those questions ran through my mind numerous times last week at InformationWeek's Fall Conference, where our task was to discuss the optimization of business processes across extended enterprises. The first was when Rich Hoffman, the top business-technology executive within Hyundai's U.S. automobile operations, described the ways in which the trucking industry is far ahead of the car industry in driving IT into all facets of its operations. One example of that, he said, is that some truck manufacturers can now make it possible for their customers to download more horsepower for their fleets by reconfiguring the drive trains of those trucks electronically. Now, I apologize if this is common knowledge to all of you, but that line really made me sit forward--what does that sort of innovation portend for a prototypical old-fashioned, heavy-manufacturing, grease-and-steel industry? What about electronically managed diagnostics, tune-ups, trouble-shooting, and speed governors? When will all this become mainstream in the consumer-car market? And what about the mysterious "black boxes" buried deep within cars today that record and store every detail about what the driver does at what speeds and in which locations? How will these onrushing innovations change the businesses of truck manufacturing, engine design, service and repair, fleet ownership and management, and the financing behind all that? What about the companies that design, manufacture, distribute, and repair parts for truck engines and drive trains? What will the information stored in the black boxes mean to insurance companies and how they operate? How will these changes alter those businesses?
Hoffman also described the massive upheaval in how consumers now interact with not only Hyundai but also its dealers. The new reality is that more than 80% of Hyundai customers visit the company's Web site before visiting a dealer. In many cases, Hoffman said, this is transforming the role of the dealer from walk-in showroom and take-it-or-leave-it ulcer-giver to a fulfillment center that sets up appointments for customers who have already configured and selected the model, features, options, color, and even financing of their choice. What business are the car companies in today? Or in 12 or 24 months? And what about their dealers? Or the insurance and financing companies that have interacted with those dealers in exactly the same way for the past 60 years?
How about you--what business will you be in 12 months from now?
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