E-commerce guru gets the show on the road

As the Institute of Directors’ new head of e-commerce, James Norton will be taking to the road to spread the message about the internet’s importance to British industry. Helen Beasley discovers what he will be telling business leaders

Last week, the Government published its e-commerce bill. Tony Blair believes it will be possible to make the UK the best environment for e-commerce by 2002, and the Institute of Directors has wasted no time in securing one of his key aides in developing the Government’s policy as its new e-commerce supremo.

James Norton will be responsible for bringing UK company leaders up to date with the latest technology and giving them a better understanding of what it can do for their businesses. `Most projects fail because companies buy technology without understanding how to use it,’ says Norton. `I’m interested in how you empower people to use it. That’s what our roadshow is about: going around the country talking to people.’

Norton’s `roadshow’, which started in Leeds this week, will see him visit IoD offices to outline the institute’s e-commerce vision to local business leaders.

He is well qualified for the role. As the former director of the electronic commerce team in the Cabinet Office’s performance and innovation unit (PIU), Norton had the task of pushing the UK to the forefront of the new digital economy, and compiled the ecommerce@its.best.uk report for the Prime Minister.

`The PIU is like the Prime Minister’s private army,’ he says. `It is part of the Cabinet Office but everything it does is decided directly by the Prime Minister. He gives it projects of particular interest to him and e-commerce was one of those areas.’

Norton is an electrical engineer by profession and spent 17 years with British Telecom, followed by three years with IT consultancy Butler Cox.

He moved to Cable and Wireless in 1990 to take a marketing job, then was headhunted to run the UK Radiocommunications Agency, a Department of Trade and Industry-run organisation whose brief includes licensing radio stations.

Norton is also visiting professor of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at Sheffield University.

He believes the UK may already be more advanced in e-commerce than people think. `The UK and Europe have contributed a huge amount to this. The US pioneered basic internet technology, but many people would argue it was actually developed here. The next step for the internet is access via mobile phones and portable devices – what’s known as third-generation mobile phones – and Europe is leading the way, with the US a long way behind.’

But while the Government has an important role to play in creating the right environment for e-commerce, much of work has to be done by industry leaders, in changing the business culture.

`The UK has all the elements for success: the English language, a huge amount of innovation and pretty good telecommunications – we ought to be winning but we aren’t,’ Norton says. `The Government can’t fix that – business is going to have to do it by itself.’

He points to the global Automobile Network Exchange as an example of how e-commerce can benefit companies. DaimlerChrysler, General Motors and Ford are already benefiting from the network, which saves the car industry $1bn a year, or $76 (£46) per car. Savings are gained through better communication across the supply chain, reducing errors and shortening the time it takes to bring products to the market.

`Few people talk about this area of e-commerce – which is known as process e-commerce – but it is of more value than the hyped-up stuff offered to the consumer,’ Norton says. `British Aerospace tells me Airbus can build a plane cheaper than Boeing, despite building it on sites across Europe, because it invested much more in process e-commerce, linking the design systems. That is much more efficient.’

Many companies are still not taking advantage of these potential savings, though. In a recent IoD study of companies with over 500 employees, over 50% of directors questioned had never had a technology briefing. The report, written in conjunction with Cisco Systems and Oracle, also revealed that 48% of this sample had no plans to do so in the future.

`Small to medium-sized businesses are even worse – but let’s not be unfair to them, they have a pretty rough time, bombarded with stuff from the Government like 100 pages on how to handle the working families tax credit. Where on earth are they expected to find the time to talk about these things?

`Our roadshow will expose directors to technology and give them machines to play with. I think it will become a resource, somewhere you can go simply and easily to find out where you can find help.’

But is it unrealistic to expect the UK to become the leader in e-commerce by 2002? `I once worked for a US company which boasted it was going to be best of the also-rans. It sank without trace. If you’re going to have a target, make it realistic, make it stretching, but make it something you lead at.’

James Norton at a glance:

Age: 47

First job: Management Trainee, Post Office Telecoms

Education: BEng (Hons) Electrical Engineering, Sheffield University

Current Job: Head of e-commerce awareness and training initiative, Institute of Directors; visiting Professor of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, Sheffield University.