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Levels of e-intimacy.

What you do-and don't do-to support your e-business partnerships depends on what kind of partnerships they are.

As a writer, I know how important words are to our perceptions about the world around us. Take "e-business." The term is being used today to describe just about every type of computer-based interaction between every conceivable combination of organizations and individuals. That's not a bad thing in itself, because we need a label for the major shift that's taking place in how value transactions are being performed. But it's also a dangerous term--especially for technologists-because it tends to lump all those transactions into one basket. That can be dangerous.

Actually, we have already started to classify e-business into subcategories--most notably B2B and B2C. That may be a useful distinction, but I'd like to suggest some further distinctions within the B2B space that may be equally important to technology managers.

"B2B" simply means that two companies are talking to each other over a network connection. It doesn't distinguish between a clerical worker who happens to go to a website to make a one-time purchase for his company, and a pair of business partners who have their ERP systems directly integrated into each other's. Both are technically B2B interactions. But the former isn't very different from a B2C transaction, while the latter is a very tightly coupled relationship that requires significant investments in time, energy and technology.

That's why lately I've been talking about classifying B2B relationships in a clearer way. And, because the relationships between organizations are analogous to the relationships between people, I've been describing the levels of B2B "e-intimacy" with three personal terms: "acquaintances," "friends" and "lovers."


Briefly, "acquaintances" refer to interactions like the Web purchase mentioned above. There is no strong contractual relationship between the two companies, and no real integration between their respective IT environments. It's a lot like B2C, except that there may be purchase orders and other business documentation involved.

"Friends" are less anonymous. Usually, there is some regularity of interaction--not just over the Web, but also via phone, fax and e-mail. Access may also be granted to a variety of customer-facing systems, such as inventory and order-status applications. Special contract pricing may also be in effect.

"Lovers" have an even more intimate relationship. They will share data and business processes over encrypted network connections. The seller in the relationship may deliver all types of value-adds to the buyer, including logistics management or automated replenishment. There are probably very specific contractual obligations on either side of the fence, because the relationship has significant strategic value to both parties.

Why is it important to distinguish between these various types of B2B relationships? Because each has its own technological implications.

For example, it wouldn't make much sense to go to the trouble of offering personalization to a here-today-gone-tomorrow acquaintance. It also wouldn't make sense to make such a B2B acquaintance jump through all kinds of security hoops just to execute a purchase. It's important to make it as easy as possible for acquaintances to do business with you online, because they haven't demonstrated any desire to make a significant commitment to doing business with your company over the long haul.

Friends, on the other hand, make commitments to each other. They can, therefore, come to agreements about things like security or credit policies. You can ask a friend to supply a digital certificate, because you know who it is the certificate is authenticating. You don't really do things like that with acquaintances.

Then there are lovers. For lovers, you bend over backwards. You set up VPNs. You create XML translations. There is so much riding on the business relationship, that IT can go out of its way to make sure that every necessary B2B integration is reliably enabled and secure.


I bring all this up because many businesspeople get excited by the concept of "business without boundaries." Technologists can get caught up in this idea that their companies should be able to create highly bonded e-business relationships in real time.

That's neither realistic nor cost-effective. You can spend a lot of money making it possible for everyone in the world to get into your eERP system. But it's all wasted if you only have a half-dozen partners who really want to do it. Conversely, if all you offer your top customers is the same click-and-buy website to which any first-timer can have access, they'll probably get the feeling that you don't fully appreciate their business. And they'll be right.

We know what we think of people who are isolated and without friends. We also know what we call people who are willing to jump into bed with anyone they meet. Neither of these extremes is healthy in our personal lives or our businesses. Boundaries are good. You just have to know where to draw them.

The next time someone in your organization starts talking about enabling e-business relationships, ask him if he's talking about acquaintances, friends or lovers. And let me know how he reacts.
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Title Annotation:Industry Trend or Event
Comment:E-business partnerships demand varying levels of support depending on the transaction type.
Author:Liebmann, Lenny
Publication:Communications News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2000
Previous Article:Service providers seek Holy Grail of all-optical network.
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