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UW E-Business Consortium surfs 20 years of change

June 14, 2018 By David Tenenbaum

Raj Veeramani, a professor of industrial and systems engineering, created the UW E- Business Consortium to help businesses survive in the online world. Photo by Andy Manis

Twenty years ago, when the Internet was essentially a dial-up world, Raj Veeramani, a professor of industrial and systems engineering at University of Wisconsin–Madison, had a far-sighted idea: to help Wisconsin business survive the coming world of electronic commerce.

The organization that emerged, now called the UW E- Business Consortium, gathers industry executives and experts and uses a collaborative learning format dedicated to thriving, not just surviving, on the new frontier.

Members are headquartered in, or have a strong presence, in the Upper Midwest, especially Wisconsin. Although, with global brands, the results of the UWEBC stretch nationally (and internationally), most of its work, and its focus, is Wisconsin.

As electronic commerce morphed into the much vaster realm of electronic business, what has not changed is the fundamental principle of mutual help embodied in the Consortium. With 80 members participating in more than 50 events this year, it has become both a major knowledge transfer and outreach endeavor and a perfect example of the Wisconsin Idea in action. Members include Kohler, American Family, Harley Davidson, Schneider and Lands’ End.

The UWEBC has:

  • Benefitted more than 25,000 industry participants, helping Wisconsin business professionals remain on the leading edge by enabling lifelong learning and talent development;
  • Conducted more than 750 learning events, catalyzing business innovation through thought leadership and knowledge transfer;
  • Executed more than 250 industry projects;
  • Provided more than 1,500 students with real-world learning experiences; and
  • Secured more than $4 million of competitive federal research grants.

Participants in UW–Madison’s E-Business Consortium discuss issues.

As the UWEBC prepares for its 20th annual conference,

The 20th annual UWEBC conference, called Business Best Practices & Emerging Technologies Conference, will be Tuesday, Sept. 25, and feature four parallel tracks in customer service, information technology, marketing and supply chain management.

As UWEBC prepared for the conference, Founder and director Veeramani sat down to answer a few questions:

Q: Even a casual outsider knows that the realm we call “electronic business” has changed fundamentally over the past 20 years. What’s your perspective?

RV: From watching the “Aha!” moments among our members, I see four waves that have revolutionized e-business. Each one was a new frontier, and competitive companies had to succeed in each one as it emerged.

  • At first, we talked about “electronic commerce” and saw it as a new channel for creating visibility and sales for established companies. This was pretty much across the board, both business-to-business and business-to-consumer.
  • Our members quickly realized that the electronic influence was about more than creating a website and selling through it. To succeed in delivering to the customer, you also needed to organize and use web-based technologies across the business. At this point, e-commerce evolved into e-business, which became a strong enabler in IT, supply chain management, customer service, and marketing, to name three areas. Pretty much at the same time, the web stopped being an independent channel. Customers wanted to interact across many touch points – phone, email, text, web or stores. And so business had to develop an omnichannel capability; to seamlessly serve the customer regardless of the touchpoint.
  • Ten years ago, a trifecta of mechanisms for customer-company interaction swept in: social media, mobile devices and cloud computing. Just when e-businesses thought they had the revolution figured out, they had new capabilities to think about. In isolation, each might not have had much impact, but combined, the change was massive, fundamental and ongoing.
  • Finally, in the last couple of years we’ve seen an exploding level of connectivity and data availability. We are starting to see, for example, sensors on so many devices providing real-time access to ever-more-granular data. The implications could not be more profound. The traditional view was that my product is better than yours. But in this smart, connected world, companies need to envision their products in the context of the customer’s broader ecosystem. If you make products for the home, how will they contribute to a smart home? Further, information-based services can now be offered as a valuable complement to physical products. This is both a significant opportunity and an existential threat, and a company is forced to ask fundamental questions: What is our value proposition? Why do we exist? The emerging era of digital business now enables companies not just to do things in a new way, but to do altogether new things. Working together with complementary partners, businesses can now offer products and services that they could not offer before.

What is the biggest single lesson of your years guiding the UWEBC?

At the end of the day, no matter what channel a business uses, it is interacting with a human being. It’s critical to gain a clear understanding of the customer experience, of their underserved and unmet needs. It’s so tempting to concentrate on the technology, but it’s essential to get the customer experience right.

The human element is also critical within the UWEBC. I believe there’s an innate, human need for face-to-face interaction, and one key to our success is a structure that establishes trust and enables knowledge-sharing and a willingness to help each other. Our events are always structured to emphasize peer-to-peer interaction and collaborative learning.

How do you evaluate the biggest e-business challenges today?

Let me mention just three topics:

  • How do you ensure talent development? The pace of technological change is relentless, and accelerating. Only if your people are at the leading edge can you stay abreast of opportunities.
  • How do you make informed, reasonable decisions? There’s a temptation to be seduced by every new technology, without evaluating whether it creates value for the customer.
  • I already mentioned this, but it’s worth repeating: You can’t afford to think or act without considering the broader ecosystem in which your company creates value for customers.

In the face of such continual change, professionals and executives must engage in lifelong learning, and the collaborative learning in the UWEBC leverages the power of the community to foster candid conversations and innovative thinking. Together, we sift and winnow, sorting fads from enduring trends.

What, in your view, is the UWEBC’s biggest accomplishment?

Well, that’s like asking a parent to name the favorite child! Let me mention a few areas.

We were born in the Wisconsin idea – that the bounds of the University extend to the borders of the state, and beyond. I have not found anything like the UWEBC in other states in terms of the level of industry engagement and collaboration. Nobody is even close.

We see an amazing amount of innovation in our Wisconsin members, in terms of how they are leveraging technology to create value for customers. Forget the “stodgy Midwest”: Some of our companies are absolutely killing it on mobile! The UWEBC’s significant impact on enabling innovation and business excellence in Wisconsin industry is truly remarkable.

The consortium provides opportunities for students to participate in real-world, project-based learning, which enhances their career readiness and professional expertise, and provides a talent pipeline to our members.

These results grow naturally from our unique model of a university-industry partnership, our focus on the collective wisdom and experience in our member companies and the great people who work in them. The UWEBC is, by nature and design, multidisciplinary, and we still abide by our founding principles: take a holistic perspective, be non-commercial and collaborative, and foster innovation.

I think having survived and thrived for 20 years shows the evergreen value of this approach. Because business always faces new challenges, issues and technologies, it’s vital that our mechanism be agile, adaptable, relevant and meaningful. A trusted and collaborative learning environment focused on thought leadership, innovative strategies, best practices and emerging technologies is our solution to the ever changing threats and opportunities facing e-business.