Baby, It's You
IF SOCIETY IS GROWING more impersonal, at least there is the consolation that computer networks seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Over the past five years, networking environments—the Web being a prime example—have been falling over themselves to mirror the interests and character of their users as closely as possible. If a site proves personable it becomes sticky—meaning users keep coming back—or so the theory goes. And new tools that offer everything from storage areas for correspondence to online collaboration with other visitors hope to make sites more attractive than ever.
Such features are now common (MyYahoo.com, MyExcite.com and a host of other my sites all use them), but more elaborate forms of personalization are beginning to appear. The latest advances offer visitors storage and processing resources—virtual offices—for their partners to use as they like. These offices might be used to create, process, and store files and The latest advances offer visitors storage and processing resources—virtual offices—for their partners to use as they like. applications; host real-time meetings; or to pursue relationships with other partners besides the one hosting the site.
There are other advantages as well. These sites tend to focus on specific business environments by providing a variety of tools designed to help customers get their jobs done. Such services dovetail nicely with the trend toward mobile computing, which emphasizes resource access from any device anywhere instead of being tied to a given computer. And it's not just a one-way street: The customer gets the services, but the hosting company profits by giving its visitors more reasons to return to its site, thus boosting traffic flow and multiplying opportunities to collect useful information or make sales.
According to Mary Jo Piper, eBusiness Global Communications Leader at Dow, some MyAccount@Dow customers actually use their virtual offices to track and manage their own inventories. Dow's virtual offices will soon support file sharing, says Piper, which will allow groups—either inside or among companies—to pursue collaborations with Dow and each other. The services are apparently quite popular; Piper expects half of the company's partners will be using these online offices by the end of the year.
Steve Biondi, a sales executive for IBM.com in Armonk, N.Y. (the division responsible for e-sites), points out that order configuration in the corporate space is a lot more complicated than purchases by consumers because the relationship between buyer and vendor is much more complex.
For the Little Guy
Online storage may not sound like much on its own, but in context it can become immensely useful. Idrive.com customer About.com—a New York City-based advice site devoted to Online storage may not sound like much on its own, but in context it can become immensely useful. topics such as cars, pets, sports and more—uses the storage to let customers keep a personal scrapbook. Content on the About.com subsites can turn over rapidly, making one post or thread difficult to locate and retrieve over time. To help, About.com lets customers save any page (whether from inside About.com or from the Web in general) to their own file space, thereby guaranteeing the content will be accessible. Users can also make their collections available to anyone. If they wish, they can even configure their virtual office to accept contributions from other About.com users.
Other Idrive.com customers use the virtual storage for different purposes. Homestead.com in Menlo Park, Calif., lets visitors collaborate in the design and development of websites; compile graphic, music and text archives; and jointly maintain group calendars.
Face to Face
Virtual offices don't have to directly involve the providing company, either. Some companies are building spaces that support collaborations among their users' partners rather than directly between the host and the user. It's not driven by altruism, of course. Such sites hope that opportunities rise with traffic; good things happen to those who put themselves at the center of the action; and, in the long run, what is good for your customers is good for you.
San Francisco-based Buzzsaw.com is a good example. The site provides online services to the construction industry, from marketplaces to building and project management tools. To keep Buzzsaw.com's services are free for small projects and relatively inexpensive even for larger ones. But the benefits to customers can be enormous. customers coming back to the site, Buzzsaw.com provides "Project Workspaces" in which all those associated with a given project—from client to construction manager to architect to contractor to supplier—can exchange designs, submit changes, examine version histories, look at part and project specifications, and more. The services are free for small projects and relatively inexpensive even for larger ones. But the benefits to customers can be enormous.
"It will completely retool the construction industry," says Jeffrey Terrell, principal at Robertson, Miller, Terrell Architects in Vail, Colo. Terrell is currently using Buzzsaw.com's services to help build a resort, and he says that the site has proven extremely valuable for keeping everyone—from architect to local political authorities—in the loop. What used to take faxes, phone calls, photocopies and overnight deliveries is now as easy as e-mail and a Web browser.
Certainly not every company will need—or want—to offer high-end personalization services such as collaboration. But examples like Buzzsaw.com and McGettigan suggest that most companies need to at least consider the possibility. And as such services evolve and expand, we could move into a future where companies compete to see who can offer the most useful operating environment, not only for their direct customers and partners, but their partners' partners as well. If so, CIOs may face a new but pleasant problem: whose gifts to accept.