Where Does the Net Buck Stop?

Building a Net-accessible business – which, of course, includes but is hardly limited to a web site – is expensive, time-consuming, technically complex, resource intensive, and deeply dependent on top-tier project management.

It involves the tight integration of technology, first-class business processes, and a forward-facing understanding of the needs of our customers (who sometimes are our own employees). It involves the correct mix of interface, content, and functionality. It focuses on sites that drive data to and from databases. It exists to help customers and noncustomers alike do business with us. In other words, a Net initiative – web site to supply-chain management – is a technology implementation project, not an HTML/JavaScript execution project. You and I – all of us that come here to ClickZ to read about online marketing and advertising issues – need to understand that we’re in the technology implementation business.

We’re all in IT, whether we know it or not. Whether we like it or not. And if we’re going to do a good job – more to the point, if we as marketers are going to be able to successfully win ownership of the corporate web initiative over time – we need to take an IT approach to the ponderous task of implementing a successful Net project.

What do I consider a successful project? It’s simple: bringing in the project in the projected time frame at the projected budget and at the expected level of quality.

You know, the usual IT goals.

If we’re going to implement a successful Net project, it’s not going to be enough for us to come to meetings to tell the Net-development vendors (and we’re likely going to be involved with more than one organization) what we want and hope they understand our hand waving and internal debates, our white-board brainstorms and flowcharts, and our carefully selected samples of other web sites we like. If we’re going to implement a successful Net initiative, we’re going to have do serious homework – tons of it – before we step foot in a conference room. Hard, ugly, boring homework. We need to set out exactly what we want the site to do – front and back. Step by step. Click by click. Before we start building the first HTML tag.

How do we do this? Here’s my prescription:

  1. Assemble the team correctly. Every web team needs to have the right mix of skills – whether you have them internally or bring them in from outside. For me, the mix is marketing, IT, and an expert from within each organization whom we intend to integrate into the process. Going to add recruitment to the web site? Put HR into the process. Going to implement inventory visibility into the site for customers? Put sales and warehouse management into the process.

  2. Bring your customers into the process. Ask the people you do business with every day what value they look to receive from a web site and from the processes in the back that the web site reaches into.
  3. Learn to specify. Consider every Net action – from the simplest link to the most complex data access and manipulation – in terms of the steps it takes to complete and then commit that to a specification. It doesn’t have to be a paper specification. In my case, when I design a site for a customer, I build the specification as a series of live HTML pages, containing pertinent information for every page on the site (for instance, what search engine phrase the page is to be optimized for, what functionality will be implemented on that page, and what pages it links to).
  4. Specification doesn’t end with the site pages. It includes the functionality we’re going to implement – from simple things like newsletter sign-ups to the most sophisticated order-processing systems. Universal Modeling Language – the standard used to develop Use Cases – is a pretty straightforward thing to learn and is understood by any reputable Net-development group.

Here are some of the benefits:

  1. You know before you begin what it is you want, and you can communicate those requirements to anyone involved with the project.

  2. It provides concrete ground for an RFP. How do you get someone to accurately bid a job before he or she knows exactly what the job consists of?
  3. It provides a single point of reference for the many people – often within many companies – to understand what is being built.
  4. It eliminates uncontrolled and unjustified scope creep. No specification is perfect, and you can expect some things to change during the course of a successful project. Changes are to be encouraged for the sake of quality, but they must be controlled.

I know, I’m lecturing. Forgive me. But I think it’s important that we all understand the importance of taking this kind of formalized approach to the work we’re all doing now. There’s so much money being spent on moving business processes online, that to go into it like it was another collateral development program is a guarantee that our money will be flying into other people’s hands when it should stay with us, where it belongs.

Where does the Net buck stop? It should stop with us.

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