Interviews by Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., DF/NPA, CNP, MVP
Dr. Norm Archer: Professor Emeritus in the Management Science and Information Systems Area of the DeGroote School of Business, McMaster University
This week, Stephen Ibaraki, has an exclusive interview with Dr. Norm Archer, a leading international authority on eBusiness.
Dr. Norm Archer is Professor Emeritus in the Management Science and Information Systems Area of the DeGroote School of Business, McMaster University, Canada. He is also Special Advisor to the McMaster eBusiness Research Centre (MeRC), which he founded in 1999 as its first director. From December 2000 to his retirement in July 2002 as a Full Professor, he held the Wayne C. Fox Chair in Business Innovation. He is currently involved in a variety of activities in research, consulting, teaching, and supervising graduate student research on eBusiness topics. He plays a key role as the coordinator of eCommerce research in the Ontario Research Network for Electronic Commerce (ORNEC) where MeRC is an important member. He has been responsible for organizing an annual symposium on supply chain management, jointly sponsored by MeRC, ORNEC, and the Purchasing Management Association of Canada. This highly successful two-day symposium has been offered three times under Dr. Archer’s leadership, and it will be offered for a fourth time on October 4-6 2006, this time under the leadership of Dr. Elkafi Hassini.
Dr. Archer has published more than 70 papers in refereed journals and conferences, and has given many invited talks on eCommerce/eBusiness at universities and conferences around the world. In his research he is active, along with his graduate students and colleagues, in the study of organizational problems relating to the implementation of eBusiness approaches, particularly pertaining to mobile applications in business, health, and government organizations, and the resulting impacts on processes, employees, customers, and suppliers. Current research projects involve various aspects of mobile eHealth, mobile government, identity theft, supply chain management, knowledge transfer and management in network organizations, and change management in organizations.
The latest blog on the interview can be found the week of May 15 to May 19, 2006 in the Canadian IT Managers (CIM) forum where you can provide your comments in an interactive dialogue.
Opening Comment: Norm, you have a long history of considerable contribution and we very much value the time you are taking to do this interview. Thank you!
A: Thank you for taking an interest in my work.
Q1: As the leading authority in eBusiness, can you profile four challenges, how you solved them, and the lessons learned?
Solution: Approach the field with an open and enquiring mind, with the intent to continue soaking up as much as possible on all aspects of eBusiness.
A major challenge in working in an academic environment is ensuring that what we learn about eBusiness is made available to the people who are looking for solutions for the problems they face.
Solutions: Our approach is to interact with potential users as much as possible. This allows them to take advantage of what you have learned, but at the same time it acquaints you with other potential problems that can be researched. This is what universities and governments call technology transfer, since it enables knowledge and ideas to be transferred to potential users. One way we have been doing this at MeRC is through our annual symposia and conferences, including the McMaster World Congress on eBusiness, the Supply Chain Symposium, and more recently the eRetailing Symposium, in collaboration with the Canadian Institute of Retailing and Services (CIRAS) at the University of Alberta.All of these conferences and symposia include presentations by both researchers and practitioners, and they provide fertile ground for knowledge exchange. We also have many invited speakers for classes and seminars from business and government as well as other academic disciplines. These presentations are open to the public, and we often make presentations at professional gatherings and events. An additional major channel for technology transfer is by training graduate and undergraduate students through understanding and researching eBusiness problems, gaining knowledge that they take with them to future employers.
Lesson: Although government programs about technology transfer are of value, making it happen by working with potential users and promoting exchange of knowledge is what really counts.
eBusiness projects almost invariably cross disciplinary boundaries so that, in any particular industry, solutions require knowledgeable input from researchers in multiple disciplines. For example, supply chain solutions may require a background and experience in computer science, engineering, and business. Healthcare may require medical, nursing, legal, business, and computer science knowledge. In a study of identity theft, (in which I am involved), there are multiple aspects that can be addressed from legal, business, engineering, and computer science approaches.
Solution: How do you solve such problems? Clearly, the only approach that works well is to create teams with expertise in each of the disciplines and to work together with them to come up with solutions to the issues. I have found this to be a highly satisfying experience, since my greatest motivation has always come from creating or learning something new. And when working with people in other disciplines there is always something new.
Lesson: Effective inter-disciplinary teams don’t just materialize as they are needed. Creating contacts by getting to know people in different disciplines comes from informal meetings, attending relevant conferences and workshops, and presenting interesting results. Leadership of such teams requires a great deal of skill in organizing and managing the work, with communications being the most important aspect. A not insignificant task is attracting the funding that is needed to support the work.
I know a number of very intelligent entrepreneurs, all of whom have come up with innovative products or services that relate to eBusiness and other business areas. From my observations, I have seen that it is often very difficult for startup companies with untried eBusiness solutions to break into the marketplace. These often result from very smart entrepreneurs developing solutions that seem to solve existing problems very well, and that ultimately provide competitive advantage to those companies that use them.
Solution: At this point in a product development cycle, marketing must become the major focus, but even if the startup company has this focus, it is often difficult to get a new product or service introduced to the marketplace. Problems they may have include developing a suitable business model, pricing, or in adapting their product to be a better match with customer needs. In particular, if this is a new software package or other type of eBusiness application, potential users must see it as easy to install and link to their existing systems. They have enough trouble managing an existing potpourri of incompatible systems that they may have had to modify in order to integrate with their internal systems, let alone work with the systems and networks that link to their business partners.
Lesson: eBusiness has resulted in the development of many innovative solutions, but getting companies to adopt these solutions requires a major amount of effort until they have been proven to be effective at demonstration sites. But crossing the chasm from innovative solution to demonstrated success is a step that requires much advance planning, receptive companies willing to try the solution, and more than a little luck.
Q2: What are the three biggest issues facing business in 2006, and in 2007? How can they be addressed through technology and business process?
Q3: What are the four biggest issues IT executives today and what are your recommendations for meeting these challenges?
Q4: Can you profile your current research projects and provide an early glimpse into your conclusions and the impact they will have on businesses/organizations?
Q5: What more do you wish to accomplish with MeRC and how will you do this?
A: MeRC is now being directed by Dr. Khaled Hassanein, a colleague in the DeGroote School of Business. However, I continue to work as a Special Advisor to MeRC, and do research on eBusiness projects. MeRC continues to play a major administrative, promotional, and funding role for both myself and a number of fellow faculty members, researchers and graduate students. As with many research centres, raising funds to support research initiatives and the necessary administrative support is an important issue. We have been fortunate in being able to attract both private and public matching funds to continue with a number of important research initiatives. I believe that MeRC will continue to foster eBusiness research through partnerships with the business community for many years in the future.
Q6: Can you profile the expected outcomes from your work with ORNEC?
A: MeRC is one of the key members of ORNEC (Ontario Research Network for Electronic Commerce), which is a consortium of McMaster University, University of Ottawa, Carleton University, and Queen’s University. ORNEC has supported a number of the research initiatives I have already mentioned, including eHealth and identity theft. It has also supported a number of other projects including (at McMaster) hiring additional faculty members to improve our research ability in eBusiness. One of the key outcomes from ORNEC is that it brings together faculty members from different disciplines from the universities involved (business, engineering, law, medicine), to work on projects where we have common interests. eBusiness knows no boundaries, and ORNEC has helped us, as researchers, to break down geographic and disciplinary boundaries as we develop the understanding that comes from working together in diversified teams.
Q7: What will be the key issues and their possible solutions at the next “annual symposium on supply change management”?
A: Dr. Elkafi Hassini at McMaster University is organizing this year’s annual symposium, and its theme is “Optimizing the Supply Chain: Competitive Advantage through Information Technology”. It will be held on October 4-6 2006. We are looking for academic and practitioner papers that address this issue in a number of areas including: auctions and eMarketplaces, dynamic pricing, demand management, intelligent agents, network design, reverse logistics, risk management, supply chain coordination, supply chain security, supplier management, and supply chain software.
Q8: How do you see your research work evolving into the future and why?
A: I get a great deal of pleasure in working with colleagues, both at McMaster and other universities as well as with graduate students. I certainly plan to continue research in eHealth for some time in the future, in collaboration with researchers in health sciences, engineering, and computer science. This field is replete with eBusiness issues that must be resolved in order to enable overworked and understaffed healthcare staff to spend more productive time working with patients. In healthcare, there is a broad range of issues extending from the very technical to the softer human and societal issues. A broad perspective is helpful in recognizing problems and potential solutions. In addition, I plan to continue work in other areas such as identity theft – a growing problem that is having a negative impact on the more widespread use of eCommerce in Canada, and other issues affecting the future of eBusiness.
Q9: Provide your five predictions of future trends, their implications and business opportunities?
A: Trend 1: International business activity will continue to expand.
Implication: If Canada is to continue growing as a trading nation, we need to make use of advanced information technology to support trade activities.
Business Opportunity: There are many business opportunities over and above the obvious advantages of selling and buying competitive goods and services in and from other countries.
Trend 2: Increased use of information technology and related services in healthcare.
Implication: Canada is in continuing crisis in being unable to fund the level of healthcare our citizens require to maintain a healthy and productive existence. Information technology is one part of the answer to this problem, so there will be a growing demand for well-designed systems that link with existing systems and perform valuable services for both providers and their patients.
Business Opportunity: There are many business opportunities in this area, as governments strain to find IT solutions that will reduce costs and waiting times, without jeopardizing the quality of care that patients receive. This includes innovative solutions in many areas, including supply chain management, better communications access for healthcare providers, better support for the chronically ill and the aged that will reduce their visits to emergency rooms, etc.
Trend 3: Wireless technologies will continue to expand and affect our everyday lives both in business and personal activities.
Implication: People, especially younger ones, will be in constant communication with their business and personal associates, no matter where they are, and will take this for granted. There is a downside to this – for example, just recently I was at an important presentation by a visiting expert, to an audience of about 250, and there were no fewer than four interruptions from cellphones ringing during the presentation. This is as unpleasant as spam, and we will have to find a way to deal with it effectively.
Business Opportunity: The possible innovations growing out of this trend are virtually endless. Anything that we do that is location independent will ultimately be transferred to mobile platforms. This includes interaction with customers and clients, business associates, government organizations, and friends, and remote access to information sources in the course of our work.
Trend 4: Virtual work and collaboration will continue to expand as we develop into more of an international economy.
Implication: Business travel, rather than being normal, will be used primarily just to get to know new clients. This will improve productivity by reducing costs, travel fatigue, and increasing the time spent on productive work.
Business Opportunity: Systems with video, audio and computer links among collaborative groups will be used much more extensively. In fact, this is a trend that has already developed significantly. In particular, there are real opportunities for innovative approaches to handling the time shifting that occurs across multiple time zones.
Trend 5: Development and implementation of standards are the key to growth in eBusiness applications
Implication: We need to solve the problems that business has with multiple information silos. Big businesses and governments have mainly attacked this problem internally by implementing ERP systems, but there are many firms that cannot afford the complexity and cost of such systems.
Business Opportunity: Develop applications that pay attention to interface standards (e.g. Web services in general, HL7 in healthcare, etc.), so they can be linked to other systems and interchange records and other information with little difficulty. This will be imperative for market acceptance of such systems. Since most Canadian firms believe that systems they develop should in the long run be exportable to the U.S., it is important to think of this market as a driving force. For example, in healthcare systems, the U.S. federal government has standards and interoperability as an overarching theme, focusing on partnerships between public and private organizations to set standards so healthcare providers can share information. Their infrastructure would be made up of regional health information networks built on an open architecture and utilizing national standards, but with the possibility of local differences.
Q10: For the future, which specific new internet technologies do you find will have the greatest impact on history?
A: At this point, I believe that mobile Internet technologies will continue to grow in importance over the coming years. They will not cause the large scale abandonment of landline technologies anytime soon for normally stationary applications in Canada. However, in other less advanced countries, wireless technologies can leapfrog large scale investments in landline technology. In the more developed countries, the growth in the mobile workforce and in leisure activities is a major driver in the development of new mobile applications that support mobile, location-sensitive, and time-critical activities. These applications will continue to evolve rapidly as the cost of wireless communications continues to drop and as innovative applications are adopted throughout the business community.
Q11: Can you talk about the challenges around compliance?
A: I’m not too knowledgeable about regulatory compliance, of the type that involves Sarbanes-Oxley regulations. Although these are U.S. regulations, they clearly are having a major impact in Canada and on the rules that govern Canadian businesses. They can create business problems because they cost money and time to be compliant. However, it seems to me that some of these regulations just make good business sense. If they help avoid the white collar criminal excesses that have destroyed business value and sometimes entire companies, then they are well worth the investment.
I am more knowledgeable about privacy compliance, which affects every business, individual, and institution in Canada in one way or another. Some of my colleagues who are associated with MeRC have generated a number of papers on privacy in eCommerce. My own experience has been with the healthcare system. As a provincial responsibility, for example, Ontario has implemented PHIPA (Personal Health Information Protection Act) rules to govern privacy in healthcare. In healthcare, privacy of the individual is of paramount importance, with which I have no disagreement. But Canada has taken a direction in maintaining privacy that differs from many other countries. A major problem with our healthcare system (which of course is a provincial responsibility) is the lack of an accepted standard definition of an electronic healthcare record (EHR). Although we may have the benefit of such a definition in the foreseeable future, this is an extremely complex topic. Implementing such a definition is another matter entirely.
Another barrier to EHR standardization is that we still have no accepted unique identifier that can be used with medical/health records. This is hard to believe, but it is true. All Canadian employees and many others have individual social insurance numbers, in Ontario everyone has an Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) number, people with passports have passport numbers, drivers have driver’s license numbers, etc. But no accepted unique identifier we can use for electronic health records. As far as I can tell, this is because there is a desperate fear that a unique identifier would invade someone’s privacy, an example of political correctness carried so far that it prevents the development of systems that are more effective in providing healthcare (reducing errors, eliminating duplicate tests, speeding treatment in institutions where the individual has not previously been registered, etc.). Swedenhas used unique personal identifiers since 1947, and it appears on all individual health records, electronic or otherwise. Among other countries, Germany and China both have unique national identity cards.
This is not to say that national identifiers for health records would solve all the problems associated with IT advances in healthcare, but at least it would help in organizing individual health records so they would be easy to access or transfer as individuals move among the many healthcare institutions that may provide service to them. Of course, any such records would have to have secure privacy safeguards so that only healthcare providers with a need to know could access the records.
Q12: Which are your top five recommended resources?
Q13: Provide commentary on two topics of your choosing.
A: Topic 1:
Closing Comment: Dr. Archer, you continue to make lasting contributions to our profession and industry. We will follow your work with interest. Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. We wish you continued success for the future.
A: You are most welcome!