A Business Technology Place

Where operations, projects, and innovation collide and divide

To build it or to maintain it. That is the question.
It’s a classic question in organizational design. The answer of course is you have to do both. I’m not talking about the decision of a product nearing the end of its life cycle where you decide between adding additional features or putting it in maintenance mode. Rather, this is about allocation of people and teams within an eCommerce organization to maintenance or operational activities versus allocation to projects.

I’ve seen terms like “run the business”, “keep the lights on”, and “operations”.   Those terms refer to activities that an organization does to maintain service to existing customers or to maintain production of existing products. In an eCommerce team this might be activities like maintaining server equipment, network connectivity, data backups, content management.

But we also need people assigned to “build the business”, “new projects”, and “innovation”. These are tasks like building new features in the system and creating entirely new products and services that have new demand in the market place.

It’s not just an IT problem.
Other functional areas of an organization design responsibilities around this need. A typical Sales team will have inside account managers (run the business) and new partnership development (build the business). Marketing product managers are challenged with how to split time between servicing existing products (run the business) and building new features (build the business) for their product. IT is challenged with it because they have systems to maintain while also trying to help the business build features and solutions on new technology.

Eric Brown makes a good case for splitting the responsibilities and focus of an IT organization into operational and innovation areas. His point is that people are trained and have skills in certain areas. If that is “running the business”, then keep their focus on that so they do it really well. But don’t expect them to be good at bringing new innovation to the business.

Asking the question is easy. Answering it is not.
So how do you solve allocating people across operational and new project work? In my mind, there’s no single answer. It involves creating a balance and is effected by a number of criteria:

  • People: How many people do you have? Smaller organizations may not have the luxury of dedicated people per function. I think this puts them in a tough spot because to Eric Brown’s point, not everyone has the mindset (or skillset) to contribute to both.
  • Time: How do you split time between operations and project? Do you set a goal for 50/50, 70/30, etc? That’s likely tough to follow week-by-week because emergencies like hard drive failures don’t run according to a schedule.
  • Priority: What’s more important the operations or getting new business? This is such a tough question. Leaders that have incentives based on new revenue growth certainly lean towards new business. But we know that companies that neglect their existing customers and operations may not see tomorrow to have a chance to build out new business.

eCommerce teams need to find a balance.
To play the eCommerce game, teams need the ability to experiment as well as implement change. That’s how you drive new business. But maintaining the existing store is just as important. So when you create an eCommerce organizational design make sure to account for run the business as well as build the business activities.

I’d like to know how you’ve solved this within your organization. What say you?

Defining an eCommerce Operation – Content Management

UPDATE 10/27/10 – I posted a mind map of my eCommerce Operation on mindmeister that replaces the original map contained in this post. This includes the latest updates to my organizational thoughts on an eCommerce team.

This is the second post in a series about defining components of an eCommerce organization.  The first post explored elements of solution ownership. Today I’ll look at the area of content management. An important aspect of any eCommerce site is that the content of the site must be up-to-date and it must be correct. Prospects and customers rely on the content management owners to keep the store front ready for shopping.

There are four distinct areas of content management, but a given site may not require all four areas.

Product Setups

The product or service setups area defines attributes about the product or service that customers will review while shopping. This includes a description, key characteristics, images, delivery options, etc. On the Internet, product attributes are vital because customers are shopping based on your description, not on the ability to touch and feel the product. Since they have the ability to shop multiple stores at the same time, then they will use your product descriptions to make sure that they are comparing the same product. Product owners use descriptions to merchandise a product in the online store.

Marketing Setups

Setups from the marketing organization center around ads, promotions, or surveys. The marketing group will use the eCommerce store to show advertisements either for their own products within the site or for other products outside the site. eCommerce stores have space or screen real-estate available for advertisements and the content managers will swap ads in-an-out of this space based on the instructions from marketing. This same space could also be used for promotional items on the site such as 2-for-1, free shipping, or percentage-off discounts. I link surveys with marketing setups because marketers will use customer surveys or other types of customer input areas to gauge the effectiveness of products, services, and the customer experience. The Internet has given marketers other options in addition to a question/answer type survey. Options include product ratings, product comments, idea submission, forums, discussion groups, etc. The survey thus has become a much more interactive and dynamic tool. The eCommerce team has the ability to use the comments from one customer to influence the decision making of another customer.

Online Content Setups

The online content area includes electronic content for customers to consume online, not to physically buy. This could include things such as news articles, blog posts, product specification sheets, videos, or images. This type of content is the main course at a news agency or blog where the provider is offering information, ideas, and opinions to customers/readers. In today’s age this type of content can be self managed by the author or sent by the author to a centralized groups that posts the information to the site. The most important thing is to keep the content fresh and relavent to the readers. Allow the readers to comment and be involved with the online content. Make it more of a conversation rather than a speach.

Client Setups

In some cases business-to-business (B2B) sites or sites that offer products on behalf of an organization will need to have a client based setup. In this model the client is an organization and a customer is the buying agent of the product or service. If the web site servers multiple clients then it will need to have client profiles from the content management and setup team. A client setup would include elements such as a name, address, billing type, tax rate, allowable delivery values, etc. Custom setups might include rules which effect processing of orders or information related to the client. Items in custom setups might include order processing holds for verifications, removal of some web site features, special customer messaging, etc. Some client setups might also include branding of the eCommerce site. In a private label arrangement you would setup your site to look and feel like the client branding so that the customer doesn’t know they are shopping on a third party site. Co-branded setups would contain pieces of your branding as well as the client.

Content management is a distinct area of the eCommerce operation because content of the site should be constantly changing and updating. Whether an organization chooses to make the content creators the same as the content implementors is a tactical decision. Just make sure to equip the implementor with the proper tools to keep the content up-to-date in an efficient manner.