Finding a ‘radical’ theme in Web success stories

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The dot-com storm has brought a windfall of books chronicling what happened and where the Web goes from here.

"Radical E: From GE to Genron—Lessons on How to Rule the Web," by Joel Kurtzman and Glenn Rifkin, offers a best-practices approach to how companies can now play the Internet game. Kurtzman and Rifkin, both former business reporters for The New York Times, offer several case studies, including General Motors Corp., Nortel Networks Ltd. and Staples Inc., to show what they consider winning Web strategies.

In a recent interview with BtoB, Rifkin discussed a few of the book’s themes. Kurtzman was unavailable to participate in the discussion.

BtoB: Describe the profile of a typical "Radical E" corporation.

Rifkin: The "Radical E" company realizes the Web is here to stay and can’t be viewed in a shortsighted way. Senior managers need to understand this isn’t a passing fad and, despite current economic woes, which are cyclical, there’s much more to come from the Web. They also have to realize the brand drives the Web and not vice versa. It sounds simple, but a lot of companies don’t get it.

BtoB: Are Fortune 500 companies re-evaluating their Web strategies in light of the dot-com crash?

Rifkin: What’s happening now is an incredible chasm between IT and business because there’s always been a fear among C-level executives that they’re being fed a bunch of hooey by IT. There have been false starts and some CEOs have been burned by technology. But they have to realize [the Web] is a key part of their future.

BtoB: What are some of the emerging trends in conducting business over the Web?

Rifkin: GE Plastics realized it has a finite number of customers who use their material, so it turned its Web site into a community site. This way, a products manager for, say, GM, can find out exactly what he needs through an instant messaging system [staffed] by a live person, which is a radical way of thinking—inserting a human back into the Web. The Internet, like anything else in business, is about people. There’s no way a multi-billion-dollar company can’t make it so its Web site feels like a mom-and-pop store.

BtoB: The book identifies rock star David Bowie as one individual who exemplifies the adoption of a solid Internet strategy. What can companies grappling with a Web strategy learn from Bowie?

Rifkin: He embodies a lot of the rules [to make a successful Web play]. He is the CEO of his own industry and he takes the Web very seriously. What he’s done is create a community he’s very much a part of, and he makes the time for it. CEOs have to make the time [for the Web], and if they say they’re too busy, they’re saying they’re too busy for their customers. What [Bowie] understands about the Internet is that you can’t fight it but need to embrace it, which is good advice for any C-level executive who dreads cannibalization.

BtoB: In which industries will the Internet pose the greatest danger or challenge?

Rifkin: It’s going to be profound everywhere. But media—look at the AOL Time Warner merger—is one example of where there are going to be big changes. It’s still not clear what strategies industries will embrace or how one-to-one marketing will grow. What is clear is that the Internet will be reinventing whole industries.

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