Alignment: How to Do Business on the Internet

Margaret Logan, Gutenberg Internet Services, Canada
Robert K. Logan, University of Toronto, Canada

Because the nature of business is competitive, it does not take long for the business community to adopt a new technology once it can see a commercial advantage. From time to time, a technology comes along that revolutionizes all business activities. The printing press, the telegraph, the assembly line, the telephone, the mainframe computer, the microcomputer, and now the Internet are examples of tools that have completely transformed business activity.

With the introduction of each of these new business tools, there has always been a period of adjustment and experimentation in which the business community tried to discover the best way to take advantage of the new technology. We are in the midst of such a period with the Internet, as companies scramble to discover the best ways to use this fascinating tool.

Initially, the early enthusiasts thought that the Internet could be used to automate the sales process by offering products and services that users could order directly on the World Wide Web, much like home shopping on TV. This application has found some modest success; but anyone who thinks that this is the ultimate use of the Net is vastly underestimating the potential of this very powerful, yet subtle, medium. Only 11.1 percent of recently surveyed users indicated that shopping was one of their uses of the World Wide Web.

The purpose of this paper is twofold. One is to focus attention on the lessons of the past that examined how communication media have affected business, drawing on the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, as developed in Gutenberg Galaxy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962) and Understanding Media (New York: McGraw Hill, 1964). The other is to suggest a specific approach to using the Internet for business that we have called "alignment," introduced in Robert K. Logan's book, The Fifth Language (Toronto: Stoddart, 1995), based on his earlier work with Marshall McLuhan in the 1970s. The fifth language, which is computing, evolved from the first four languages: speech, writing, math, and science. We would suggest that the Internet and the World Wide Web are, perhaps, the sixth language, because they are greater than the two components of which they are composed-computing and telecommunications.

Although McLuhan had no first-hand experience with either the Internet or microcomputers, his insights into the way in which technology impacts on society have tremendous relevance for understanding how to use the Internet to promote commerce. His central theme that "the medium is the message" can be used to better understand the Internet. The message of the Internet is instantaneous response, ease of access, continuous learning, integration, and community.

To fully exploit the feature of instantaneous response, the two-way communication aspect of the Internet, which is frequently ignored, should be used as much as possible. Ease of access can be assured by good information design of a Web site coupled with an interface that most people already feel comfortable with. Perhaps the most important thing that we can learn from McLuhan is that the content of any new medium is always some older medium. The content of the telegraph is print, and the content of print is writing. The content of writing is speech, and the content of speech is thought (McLuhan 1964, 9).

When a medium first appears, it uses the content of an earlier medium exclusively for its own content until its users have learned to exploit the new medium to develop new forms of expression. This is exactly what is happening with the Internet. One of the first contents of the Internet was e-mail, followed by file transfers. This is still one of the prime uses of the Internet in commercial life and will always remain so, because of its tremendous convenience for business communications given that it reduces the cost of communication while at the same time expanding its scope.

There is no question that e-mail is contributing to the globalization of the economy, particularly for individuals and small firms, but this is not the aspect of the Internet that will revolutionize business. There does not yet exist a single application of the Internet that can revolutionize business activity, and perhaps there never will be such an application. In our opinion, it will be the strategic use of the Internet that will ultimately lead to the successful application of the Net to business. The purpose of this paper is to suggest how the strategic use of the Internet can be fashioned, based on the insights of McLuhan's theory of communication.

McLuhan's notion that the "medium is the message" suggests that a medium transforms the information that is communicated by it. The lesson to be learned is that information created for one medium will not necessarily work on another medium. Copy created for a magazine ad or a television commercial is inappropriate for the Internet. In planning a World Wide Web site, for example, the structure of information will be critical to its success. Explicit promotion is gauche, but providing information that leads to informed decisionmaking is politically correct.

"The user is the content" takes on a whole new meaning on the Net. Every Internet user brings his or her own experience to the medium and transforms the content according to his or her own needs. Furthermore, the Internet user has a completely different profile than the television viewer, who is a passive consumer of information who has been desensitized by the continuous barrage of unwanted messages. Internet users, on the other hand, are actively seeking specific information and do not welcome unsolicited information. In creating messages and information for Internet users, it is useful to regard them as hunters and gatherers who have a low tolerance for the pollution of their information environment. Television viewers, on the other hand, live in mental junk piles and are constantly scavenging for bits of information, usually in the form of sound bites that might keep them amused while they relax.

Let us then extend this profile of the Internet user to the workplace. One of the important lessons from McLuhan's study of media is that electric media integrate information and activities mediated by the flow of electric information. "The restructuring of work and association was shaped by the techniques of fragmentation, that is the essence of machine technology. . . The separation of function and the division of stages, spaces and tasks are characteristic of literate and visual society and of the Western world. These divisions tend to dissolve through the action of the instant and organic interrelations of electricity" (McLuhan 1964, 8 and 247). Microcomputers and the Internet will completely dissolve the fragmentation of the functions of present-day firms, which is a holdover from the previous patterns of industrial age commerce. The key to the successful application of the Internet will be to develop an Internet strategy that integrates or aligns the different functions of an organization needed to achieve its overall business objectives.

Let us begin by assembling the elements for such a strategy by reviewing some of the impacts of the Internet and some of the things it does well. The Internet is retrieving many of the patterns of cooperation characteristic of oral culture among traditional competitors and ameliorating the cutthroat competition of traditional business.

The Internet is a double-edged sword. At the same time that it is retrieving some of the cooperative patterns of an earlier era when the pace of commerce was considerably slower, it is also accelerating the pace at which business develops by creating the expectation that information can be made available instantaneously. The Internet is gaining acceptance in the business world at a phenomenally rapid rate, which is reminiscent of the way in which microcomputers took hold in the early 1980s. Like the microcomputer, the Internet is being introduced at the grass-roots level in a random and haphazard manner by individual employees who have discovered that they can enhance their own individual performance at work by using this communications channel.

The same chaos that followed the introduction of micros is about to repeat itself with the Internet. Even in those cases where the Internet has been introduced company-wide, there are few Internet strategies in place. Companies that adopt the Internet do so by and large to realize the cost savings in communications that the use of this technology affords, rather than to realize some overarching organizational objective.

Analysts often make the mistake of judging the value of the Internet solely in terms of its contribution to direct sales. The true criteria for judging the usefulness of the Net should be strictly in terms of whether or not it helps an organization achieve its goals. The Internet is probably much stronger as an information-gathering, customer support, marketing, and communications tool than a direct sales tool; but by fulfilling these other roles, it will increase sales.

Let's consider what we can do with the Internet as an information-gathering and customer support tool. The Internet can be used to track standards, conduct technology watches, gather badly needed information, obtain answers to questions, disseminate information, promote products, support customers' use of services and products, send and receive all types of documents, and obtain software code to reduce the cost and time to develop systems software. The Net is particularly useful for conducting customer relations, market research, and product support, as well as obtaining market feedback.

Of all the ways in which the Internet can add value to the various activities of an organization, marketing is probably the most fertile field. The first instinct is to use the Net as an advertising medium, i.e., using the old medium of television as the content of the new medium of the Internet. This approach is doomed to failure and does not take advantage of the interactivity that the Net offers. Traditional use of media for display ads in print media and spots in broadcast media have lost their effectiveness. To have impact today, a superficial hit will not work; it is necessary to educate one's potential customers about the advantages of the product or service one is marketing. Customer can and will sell themselves on the advantages of a company's products or services on the basis of this information. By providing information such as product announcements, newsletters, frequently asked questions, corporate profiles, pricing, product descriptions, and links to competitor's sites (in instances where an inferior product or service is offered), etc., in an interactive format, one is basically narrowcasting to potential customers and at the same time unobtrusively making a large amount of data available to them-allowing them to customize the information to suit their needs and interests. Because the Internet is already segmented into micromarkets, it is easier to narrowcast one's message. However, as a communications tools, it is the most effective because it achieves connectivity on all fronts, both externally (with customers) and internally.

Alignment: A strategy for connectivity and the use of the Internet internally to achieve business objectives

The Internet provides to an organization the potential for total connectivity with all of its customers and suppliers and, hence, permits the integration of a number of its key activities-including marketing, advertising, sales, order fulfillment, distribution, customer support, market research, market feedback, and product design. In order for these activities to work well together, they must be coordinated and aligned so that they are working together within a strategy to achieve the overall objectives of the organization. The alignment team must therefore consist of experts in marketing, communications, and information technology. Alignment goes beyond business process reengineering (BPR) and takes the process of integration represented by BPR a step further. BPR redesigns business processes so that the efficiencies of using computers can be maximized. Alignment takes those reengineered processes and aligns them in a way to maximize the flow of information that arises from the connectivity of the Internet, EDI, or any other network that connects the firm to its market and its suppliers. Alignment is to the Internet and connectivity what business process reengineering is to computing.

When the microcomputer was first introduced, it allowed working groups within an organization to pursue their own information processing strategies to fulfill the objectives of their particular division. Workgroups often found themselves in conflict with other working groups and with their management information system department, which lost control of the information processing activity within their organization. With client/server systems and BPR, a measure of order and control has been restored, so that by and large, information technology is now serving the overall objectives of organizations. Because of the volatile way in which the Internet is penetrating the business world, connectivity, like microcomputing when it was first introduced, is poised to once again disrupt the information and communication functions of many organizations. This is a pattern that has repeated itself each time a new information technology has been introduced. A period of chaos ensues in which new applications and methodologies are discovered that are often in conflict with the techniques of the past. The content of the new medium is always some older medium.

The first applications of the Internet are modeled on the traditional ways of doing things until the true leverage of the increased connectivity can be fully digested and integrated into the traditional objectives of the organizations using the Net. At the next stage, the objectives of the organization will begin to change as new capabilities manifest themselves. The tools that have been developed to facilitate global communications on the World Wide Web are also ideal for setting up communication links between the computer users within an organization. Alignment can help define individual contributions within the framework of the Internet and ensure that the overall corporate objectives are the focus.

By setting up a corporate-wide web, the members of an organization will become better informed of each other's activities. This will contribute to the coherency of the organization's outside communications and the alignment of its operations and activities. Personal home pages and those of working groups are a familiar format for disseminating information and will indirectly impact on the corporate decisionmaking process. Their usefulness is correlated with the size of the organization. In other words, larger organizations have more to gain by accessing this type of information.

The initial steps toward aligning an organization would be the following:

The alignment process is a relatively simple model and can work for organizations of any size, provided that the Alignment Committee represents all members of the organization and accepts responsibility for involving them fully in the process. Individual case studies of different types of organizations that base their Internet strategy on alignment will show that any organization, large or small, can adapt their business practices for the next decade to benefit from the Internet.