Building a Web Presence That Delivers Results
By Samuel Greengard
If one thing is indisputable about today's business environment, it's that the level of IT complexity facing organizations has grown exponentially in recent years. It's no longer possible for an IT department to toss together a Website and provide only commerce and basic transactional capabilities. Today, as mobility, social media, cloud computing, big data and analytics become increasingly intertwined, organizations face the challenge of building a Web presence that works with a spate of tools, technologies and platforms to deliver real-world results.
"The nature of enterprise technology has changed markedly over the last several years," observes Jason Breed, a social media practice lead at Accenture. "Organizations are finding that it's necessary to support and integrate an array of systems, as well as personal technology. Consumers and employees are increasingly driving technology decisions."
Of course, building the infrastructure and assembling the applications to support these changes is no simple task. Success requires keeping one eye on strategy and another eye on technology.
What does it take to construct a more holistic presence and put technology to use in innovative ways? How can a business stay on the leading edge without taxing resources beyond the stretching point? And what type of cooperation and collaboration is necessary to design and build systems that deliver a competitive advantage?
The situation is certainly challenging. As Breed puts it: "Legacy systems running on a server behind a firewall are not going to get the job done anymore. We have entered a new and far more demanding era."
The demands of today's business environment, Breed says, require business and IT executives to re-examine their goals and recalibrate resources. It is essential to connect systems and data streams in new and innovative ways—and weave Web 2.0 capabilities throughout sites and services.
What's more, the environment is changing so fast that the conventional approach to managing and upgrading systems is largely obsolete. "There is a need to eliminate silos and adopt a more strategic and integrated approach to business and IT," he adds.
Maximizing Efficiency, Minimizing Costs
One company that has soared with a more integrated approach is Flight Options, a Cleveland-based firm that sells jet cards and factional services. The 15-year-old company operates more than 100 private aircraft for approximately 1,300 clients, but, unlike an airline, it doesn't have regular routes and often winds up with planes sitting in different locations.
What's more, the company must fly the planes to virtually every corner of North America, Europe and the Caribbean on as few as eight hours' notice. As a result, it's crucial to maximize fleet efficiency, while minimizing costs related to operations, fuel and labor.
About a decade ago, Flight Options rolled out a Website that allowed customers to book flights, view their bills or remaining time credits, and order catering and ground transportation services.
"The theory was that by offering a robust site, customers wouldn't have to call in," says CIO David Davies. "We would see the booking as they come in and make the necessary arrangements." However, over the last few years, the company has found that first-generation Web services were no longer adequate. "We need to push data and capabilities in all directions," he explains.
Today, Flight Options is flying into a brave new world of Web-based connectedness. Calls and Web orders get slotted into a SQL database using proprietary software and then routed to the operations control center. There, a staff of between 35 and 45 representatives views the information via browsers on thin clients.
In the future, this may expand to Apple iPads that aren't restricted to a dedicated operations room. Meanwhile, flight crews already use iPads as a Class 1 Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) device in the cockpit to manage a variety of flight functions and options. And customers can access their accounts and place orders via a dedicated app on an iPad or iPhone.
The level of data integration provides lightning fast response capabilities, as well as an ability to manage the fleet efficiently and reduce operating costs. The company's IT infrastructure, which requires 24/7 uptime, runs on 10 Windows-based servers connected to a 20-terabyte Dell Compellent storage area network. The computing environment is about 98 percent virtualized, with a total of about 200 virtual machines.
"We've carved the data center footprint down dramatically over the last two or three years,” Davies says. “We've reduced our data center energy requirements by half.”
Integrating conventional Web-based systems with mobile apps—and integrating tablets and smartphones into the mainstream of the business—offers numerous advantages, including more direct access to data and information, Breed says. In addition, advanced Web 2.0 features, such as personalization and product recommendations, are increasingly important.
Social media has emerged as a key way to connect with customers, measure results and achieve instant feedback. "Successful companies are finding ways to get closer and become more relevant to customers and partners," Breed says.
Rethinking Customer Interactions
Putting all the pieces together and building a 21st century enterprise requires both a big picture focus and an eye for detail. It also requires business and IT executives to truly understand the business and what it needs to achieve.
At Gruppo Amadori, a wholesale producer and distributor of food products in Italy with €1.2 billion in annual revenue, the desire for leading-edge tools and features has led to rethinking how best to interact with customers. It is especially important for the company’s executives to communicate directly with younger consumers and engage in contextual marketing.
Beginning in 2010, the company began rolling out mini-Websites that enable it to target specific groups and market segments. When a small button is moved to select a desired option, the site automatically adjusts and provides relevant content. As part of the initiative, the company also put monitoring and analytics tools into play and then plugged in social media, including blogs, digital newsletters, and sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and YouTube.
From the beginning, Gruppo Amadori's IT and marketing executives worked together on a cross-functional team to design a strategy and build a viable technology platform. "We wanted to develop a robust system for listening, monitoring and measuring customer feedback and needs," says CIO Gianluca Giovannetti.
The company turned to IBM WebSphere Portal and IBM Web Content Management to run the sites. It also relies on IBM SPSS text-mining technology and Google Analytics to assess how consumers view products and better understand fluctuations in sentiment and brand image. The result, Giovannetti says, has been a 30 percent rise in brand awareness since embarking on this initiative.
Make no mistake, the business and IT demands placed on today's organizations are daunting. Increasingly, the ability to develop a holistic and cohesive approach to technology, while simultaneously tying together seemingly disparate systems, is the key to success. Enterprises that drive this thinking throughout the organization—while unleashing innovation through collaboration and new management structures—are far more likely to achieve strategic goals and objectives.
In the end, Accenture's Breed says, it's not about IT, marketing or operations singlehandedly spearheading change. It's about the entire organization marching forward with a new outlook and a new mindset about how to use the Web as the center of everything.
"Today, the focus must be on customer relevance and customer-centricity,” Breed advises. “For many organizations, this represents a huge leap forward. There are huge risks, but there are even greater rewards for those that succeed."