Fast-acting, effective techno-pain relief…

A new tool is helping companies take their first steps in the world of e-business, helping them to formulate strategy and leaving them less exposed to the tender mercies of software vendors.

Cracking the e-business conundrum is often cited as one of the biggest headaches facing UK manufacturing.

Firms regularly tell business pollsters that they expect electronic trading, collaboration and manufacturing technologies to transform their industries, if not overnight then certainly within five to 10 years. Asked by the same pollsters how they will prepare for the changes, the response is an almost equally overwhelming ‘not sure’.

Often, the reason is that they have no idea where to start. The vast array of software, hardware and general IT services on offer from the technology providers – with each one promising the ‘solution’ to a company’s e-business needs – is enough to set the head spinning.

Not commercially-led

Software companies are there to sell. This can lead to businesses adopting systems that are technology-led, not commercially-led. Many decide it’s better to do little or nothing, rather than take a leap in the dark which could prove costly later. The problem lies in the ability to make informed decisions.

But there are signs that some areas of manufacturing are taking steps to arm themselves with the information they need.

Last week, the UK Council for Electronic Business (UKCeB) released its e-BAT e-business assessment tool in software form. UKCeB – a not-for-profit federation of various trade associations and others promoting the use of e-business —originally developed e-BAT as a paper tool to help companies sort out the basics of an e-business strategy.

Despite its new digital guise, UKCeB is at pains to stress that e-BAT is a business process, not an enterprise software package.

The plan is to give managers a step-by-step process to decide what their company wants to achieve and how e- business could help them get it. It aims to look at all the factors that make a business successful, whether the internet is involved or not. These include the market they are in, the technology they are using and – perhaps most importantly – their people.

The idea is to clear the techno-fog; How much should we spend, and how quickly? Is the technology we have sufficient, or does it need upgrading? Do we need to do this at all?

The story behind e-BAT is an interesting one, and to some extent gives the lie to the idea that UK engineering is a latecomer to the e-business party.

Prompted initially by the demands of the US Department of Defense, electronic business-to-business collaboration has been an issue in the aerospace and defence sectors for more than a decade. One of the problems identified early on was helping the supply chain get into line with the tier one and OEM companies at the end of it. UKCeB decided there was a need for a common, independent business process tool which could help large firms and their suppliers form an e-business strategy. After two years in development, e-BAT appeared (in paper form). Users in the aerospace and defence sectors seem to like using an e-business ‘road map’ that comes from inside their own industry, not from the world of IT.

Timothy Thexton, a business development manager at Eaton Aerospace, used e-BAT to develop an e-strategy at one of the group’s subsidiaries. ‘We wanted a business that responded and operated on the time-scale of the internet, ie instantly,’ he says.But he was well aware of the risks of installing technology without knowing where it is taking you.

‘There really is no distinction between business competence and e-business competence,’ he says. ‘One without the other is useless. e-BAT helped us plot a path and ensured senior management and the people implementing the strategy were both pulling in the same direction.’

From its specialised beginnings, e-BAT now looks set to become quite a nice little export. The governments of Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore have adopted it as a preferred business tool for their own manufacturing industries.

A fine example, all in all, of UK manufacturing offering, if not all the e-business answers, at least some useful clues.

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