Tips for a Successful E-Commerce Platform Implementation
E-commerce platform implementations are among the most hotly discussed investments in retail IT, and not surprisingly, there’s a huge amount of growth in this area. I want to explore what it takes for implementations to be completed with no delays or emergencies, and how some that need to be rescued from an emergency state can be brought back. What makes the difference?
The difference comes from a disciplined approach, a process, really, which, tipping our hat to Carl Jung, we refer to as "Collective Consciousness." We've developed this approach over ObjectWave's 23-year history, having worked with custom development and now with semi-custom development, using e-commerce packages like Hybris, ATG, Demandware and Magento.
Collective consciousness is our version of manufacturers use of Six Sigma or Kaizen. It can simply be defined as shared goals, shared objectives and shared responsibilities for every participant in the group. If done effectively, the unifying force created by this collective consciousness will allow the group a far greater probability of success than if each of those entities attempted to do its part alone.
In this model, whether business success is measured by sales, increased brand awareness, lowered costs of fulfillment or a better customer experience, the goal is defined and shared among all participants in the development effort.
The challenge most companies have to deal with is that they're organized in silos. E-commerce development is typically owned by a vice president of e-commerce. This person might be aligned on either the technical side of the organization or on the marketing side, and as a result lack an awareness of the demands of the other elements of a project. The marketing executive may or may not “own” the e-commerce component. In some cases, marketing holds the budget and controls the effort simply by holding onto the purse strings.
There’s also the possibility of having a CFO or a board making budgetary decisions based solely on monetary issues. Once their decision has been made, the board or CFO disengages from the rest of the process.
Taking their cue from this segmented, top-down approach, strategy, creative, architecture, design and implementation are typically often left to work independently of one another, within defined boundaries. One role ends and the next one begins. This in turn can lead to a flawed process, resulting in a product that falls short of its potential.
A different approach is possible. If the entire group is exercising collective consciousness, silos and miscommunication seem to vanish. By keeping two key individuals engaged throughout the process — the solutions architect and the project manager — it’s possible to create collective consciousness. The solutions architect is frequently involved in the pre-sale phase of a project, getting an understanding of the customer’s needs as they relate to the customer’s business, systems that need integration, defined goals and functionality needed in the effort, both present and future. The project manager, besides tracking the progress of various tasks necessary to the delivery of a successful project, also brings together the participants from both the customer side and the consulting side. He plays the role of keeping everyone in tune with the goals and objectives, and continues to move the unifying force forward.
Here are the key elements in creating collective consciousness:
- Executive management support: This is an essential ingredient — a unifying force from the top down that sends a strong message to every participant. There's no better person than the executive manager to define a vision and ensure that it's carried through from beginning to end.
- User involvement: It’s key to gain the customer’s buy-in and involvement from the beginning. One approach is to introduce user acceptance testing at the onset of development. This creates an understanding of what the project or platform is going to look like before anything is developed, and gives the developer great insight into how the system will be used.
- Clear requirements: While on the surface this would appear to be an obvious benchmark, it’s amazing how often a customer’s requirements are unclear. As humans, we can engage in fuzzy logic, but computer programs don’t have the luxury of operating that way. Being precise and clear on the requirements goes a long way toward creating a universal understanding of how the system will be used.
- Proper planning: This is another obvious requirement, but … how often does a project plan begin with an end date, but no idea how to get there? Often the date drives the development, which at times makes for a stressful and difficult development effort. What's the point of focusing so much on meeting an end date that all you end up with is a product that falls short of expectations? With proper and conscious planning, it’s possible to avoid these difficulties and promote a successful project.
- Realistic expectations: Understanding the limitations of the technology will allow the project’s development team to set realistic expectations for the project’s stakeholders. Often the development of a project is owned by a business person whose understanding of technology is limited. Setting reasonable expectations will go a long way toward defining a project with proper goals and objectives.
- Interim project milestones: There’s much in the air about the strength in defining smaller goals and trying out more models. One approach to this is to develop in "sprints." More frequent, smaller iterations keep everyone engaged and allow progress to be measured incrementally. It also allows for making any adjustments without having a big impact on the overall schedule.
- Competent staff: It takes many months and years to build the expertise on the platform, but acquiring as large a percentage of certified development staff as possible is an excellent place to start. Retaining certified staff and supporting an environment conducive to maturing your developers are both key to building a team that can meet and exceed the expectations of your business.
- Ownership: When people feel they own and are accountable for their work, they perform at a higher level. Empower your staff to take ownership of different areas of the project development while allowing them to be accountable for those areas they own.
- Clear vision and objectives: In an e-commerce effort, knowing the vision and objectives helps the development staff understand the finer points of what they're building. It’s important to remember that not everyone in the effort understands the business value or the objectives of the effort. If everyone is brought around to a global understanding, a common goal can be shared and achieved.
- Employ a hard-working, focused staff: It’s a natural trait of engineers to be very focused. As a result, it’s not difficult to get engineers to work hard and remain focused. However, the other side of the equation is making sure that all the elements of the project are clearly defined. It would be difficult for an engineer to remain focused if the requirements weren't precisely articulated. Think of engineers as computers — they want clear requirements, not fuzzy logic.
If you’ve managed to put together all the elements needed to achieve collective consciousness, there’s still not an absolute guarantee of success. Furthermore, having qualified personnel involved at every stage will go a long way toward ensuring a great outcome. People on the team need to be empowered to represent their discipline and make decisions that affect their work. Empowering them also makes them accountable, and accountability is the single greatest motivator.
Staff must also be skilled. Scrolling back to where this article started, 80 percent of our developers working on Hybris projects are core certified, and we're always working toward 100 percent certification.
Showing respect to the individuals who have the knowledge, demonstrate the skills needed and participate in the team effort creates cohesiveness in a group, which is a unifying ingredient.
The practice of collective consciousness is more of an art than a science, and it's driven by a passion to succeed. The highest outcome of its use, I believe, is the consistent ability to deliver projects on time and on budget, at the highest level of quality possible.
Sam Cinquegrani is founder and CEO of ObjectWave Corp., a digital marketing technology and services company. Sam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.