No business like e-business

When the Engineering Council organised a fact-finding mission to the US in to find out how far e-business has advanced, it might have expected to return with a severe inferiority complex.

In fact, the 12-strong delegation returned from their tour August convinced that the UK — while having many lessons to learn from across the Atlantic — is far from out of the race.

Launching a report based on the mission, E-Business B2B for Success, science minister Lord Sainsbury stressed the need for UK companies to adopt a ‘global perspective’ when it comes to doing business online.

When it comes to the internet, ‘global’ still generally means the US. But the report suggests the UK is not as far behind as is generally believed.

Barbara Walker, head of information society policy at the CBI, pointed out that the UK is the largest e-commerce market in Europe, with b2b transactions estimated at £800m in 1999.

The US is way ahead, with an estimated £81bn total market. ‘The UK is closing the gap,’ said Walker. ‘Relative to the size of the economy, e-commerce spending grew by 350% in the UK in 1999, compared with 70% in the US.’

With e-business growing so rapidly in the UK, the mission hoped to learn some key lessons from the already huge US market.

David Smith, operations director for ICL, said the visit convinced him the big challenge is not technological, but cultural.

‘Cultural change is much bigger than anything else you will do with e-business,’ said Smith.

Indeed, many US companies that rushed to implement an e-business strategy early had to stop and rethink it, because their business was not ready for the cultural upheaval involved.

Despite these setbacks, the US remains open to new ways of working. The US firms visited by the delegation showed their commitment to new technologies by appointing an e-business leader within the organisation.

‘Each company we visited had an e-business champion,’ said Smith. ‘Failure to have an active champion can mean failed e-business solutions.’

Alan Watts, managing director of Yelo, a producer of electronic testing equipment, was particularly interested to find out whether engineering could be sold purely on the web, replacing the traditional field sales call.

‘The answer was no, not yet,’ he said. ‘But the ‘yet’ is the crucial word.’ Watts added that the US experience showed how the internet would create greater market transparency, with major implications for pricing.

The mission was supported by the Department of Trade and Industry’s International Technology Service. E-Business B2B for Success can be ordered via the Engineering Council’s website at, priced £30.