Explosive growth projected for B-to-B e-commerce

Business-to-business e-commerce may soon surpass retail commerce on the Web. Bob Weinstein tells how to tap into the B-to-B e-commerce job market.

Consumer Web sites have been getting all the press. Almost every day another site spends millions to lure prospective buyers to check out its wares. But, the emerging action in the e-commerce world will be in business-to-business, or “B-to-B,” e-commerce transactions, according to Myles Stern, associate professor in the Department of Information Systems and Manufacturing at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Why? While the exploding market for consumer e-business has captured the public’s attention, few people have considered the supply side of the equation—using the Web to get products and parts to e-retailers so they can deliver them to anxious consumers.

Stern said retail Web sites and B-to-B e-commerce are moving at the same speed, but B-to-B will soon surpass retail. It’s not idle speculation either. “It’s happening now in small companies," said Stern. "The companies that provided accounting and distribution software are now creating e-commerce solutions software. The demand is so strong, there’ll be a rash of smaller companies specializing in e-commerce solutions."

But, as sales increase on retail sites, the pressure on the B-to-B side to turn around product at record speeds will accelerate, Stern said. "Even if a company offloads its Web site to an Internet Service Provider (ISP), they still have to be linked to their information in real time," Stern explained. “If someone asks for a part not in inventory, for example, they’ll have to search the Web to see if that particular part is in stock and how many are available.”

In effect, businesses must have their servers running around the clock, and they need people to support that effort, according to Stern.
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Bill Schiano, assistant professor of computer information systems at Bentley College, Waltham, MA, doesn’t totally disagree with Stern, but admits the B-to-B growth rate will not be that much more explosive than the consumer growth rate. Nevertheless, it “will be huge,” he said. “It has been badly overlooked in the trade press. When students think about going into e-commerce, they immediately think about consumer-focused dot coms, which is only a small piece of the market.”

There are two pieces to B-to-B business. “On the technical side, there is back-end integration,” Schiano said. “It's much less about the Web interface than it is about making that interface tie into all the legacy systems, order entry applications, and business processes on the back-end. You need the technology to deal with the old mainframe systems even though you've got fancy Web interfaces.”

The other piece of B-to-B business is communicating with businesspeople who may be resistant to new technology.

“You need to know how e-commerce evolved from EDI (Electronic Data Interchange), the basic e-commerce vocabulary and how to apply it,” said Schiano.

As for technical skills, Schiano said an understanding of data flows and databases is more important than mastering Web development skills. “A critical skill is being able to move data around so it’s relevant to the business,” said Schiano. “Students waste their time learning HTML and other technologies. Companies need people who can build big, solid data management systems, rather than splashy dancing graphics.”

Stern disagreed with Schiano, insisting that Web development skills, as well as knowledge of computer networks and Internet connections, are all important.

Yet, both experts agreed on the importance of having general management skills. “A common scenario is how to sell a product over the Web despite having no prior experience in phone sales or how to negotiate credit card transactions,” said Stern. “B-to-B e-commerce requires a new approach to marketing and modern techniques for providing customer service,” he added.

How can you tap into the e-commerce job market? Start with industries you know, advised Schiano, so you have a better sense of whom to talk to. Find out how these organizations work. Names and titles differ from industry to industry. “The person you apply to may be the director of IS (Information Systems), the VP of operations, or a networking executive,” he said. “Follow the trade magazines, and network.”

Schiano doesn’t think much of random job-hunting through headhunters. “They’re usually not successful,” he said. “You’re better off developing and pursuing your own leads.”

Once you find the right company, it will be happy to fund training so you learn the programming languages you need, said Schiano.

Bob Weinstein's weekly syndicated column, Tech Watch, is the first career column covering the exploding technology marketplace to appear in major daily newspapers throughout the U.S.

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