Healthcare Informatics and Technology Investors
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Dr. Meredith Belbin

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Experts: Women Well-Suited for e-Business

By Michele Fitzpatrick

Women entrepreneurs are quickly becoming a part of the new e-conomic landscape, which is still up for grabs as the first wave of pioneers sets out to build online businesses. A number of experts say these women already possess the tools needed to build a new e-commerce business model to define how the organization is structured and how it treats customers. They predict the new model will break with tradition and contain more of a "woman's touch."

"E-commerce is a new game and the rules haven't been written yet. It's a unique period in business history for women to construct a new e-commerce business model," said Ellen Rudnick, executive director of the entrepreneurship program at the graduate school of business at the University of Chicago.

The traditional business model, its organizational structure and methods of reaching customers must adapt to the changing e-commerce landscape, said C.V. Harquail, assistant professor of business administration at Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, University of Virginia-Charlottesville.

"A network structure will replace the traditional hierarchy structure because the key e-conomy question is not who is in charge, but rather who has the information needed to get the job done?" she said.

Experts are quick to point out that the network organization they envision bears no resemblance to a "good old boys" network, in which informal, internal relationships dictate who holds power and how tasks are delegated. Instead, the e-business network organization is about leveling the playing field for all players, regardless of gender and position. Its primary directive is simple: What combo of employees can get this task accomplished?

"In a hierarchy structure, the corporation is an entity unto itself," said Lisa Klein, assistant professor of marketing at the Jones Graduate School of Management at Rice University. "Its boundaries are clearly defined and authority and responsibility are clearly delineated by the organizational chart."

Harquail said that in a hierarchy business structure power flows from the top down. Those at the top have the most power and authority. Subordinate positions hold lesser degrees of power and are responsible for specific parts of the work.

"In a network model, however, there is a broader definition of power and work projects can cross channels to handle parts of the work," she said. "It is about harnessing power within the organization and often harnessing some outside the organization to get a specific, sometimes short-term, task done. A hierarchy structure is neat and a network structure is often very messy, but (a network structure) is more effective to achieve goals in the fast-paced e-commerce arena."

Klein said e-businesses are likely to move to a network structure -- what she terms "virtual organizations," whereby separate elements of the business come together, often temporarily, on a project basis. "In this structure, organizations' boundaries are rather fluid and authority or responsibility is not allocated by titles but earned by building relationships among the diverse components," she said.

Harquail said women handle network structures particularly well. She said, "Within traditional hierarchy structures, female workers have often used networking, also called a workaround, to get jobs done for the simple reason they haven't had access to power and authority."

Klein also said that women have an edge in a network structure -- their experience at being flexible. She said women are more likely to have pursued alternative career plans, taking time to raise children or working part time.

The second key element of a business model, the element that relates to customers, also is morphing into something new. Not only will dot-coms replicate or improve on traditional customer service, they also will face the challenge of building virtual communities.

"Online entrepreneurs must balance their Web site's transaction capacity for selling things with its connection capacity, creating community. Sites that focus solely on directing visitors to buy the product without creating networks of people who exchange and relate to each other can't capture their market," said Harquail.

She pointed out that Ebay, the auction site, isn't a hit because of its transaction capacity alone. "It's a big hit because a visitor can say, 'Wow, I'm not the only one in the universe who is crazy about PEZ candy dispensers.' Women tend to create those kinds of connections more easily than men do," she said.

Marjie MacLean, president of Evanston-based, a streaming-media technology company, said that creating connections is vital to a new model for online customer relationships for two reasons: The technology exists to do it and a replacement for face-to-face relationships is needed for any business to thrive.

"The tools are there to foster business-to-customer relationships," MacLean said. "We can transmit a clear audio signal anywhere we can drag a telephone line. We can pair that with a robotic camera, which lets users tilt, pan and zoom a room or live-event photo while they watch and listen. This technology is available to users with a modem as slow as 28.8 to participate. We can't duplicate face-to-face encounters, but we can create a substitute with a virtual community."

Women also understand the online customer's need for added value, said Stephanie Collins, associate professor of computer information systems at New Hampshire College in Manchester, N.H. "The online consumer expects a large variety of products, fast service and the added value that has always given traditional businesses the edge over their competition."

"In a traditional sales model, a customer feels and touches the product and a salesperson adds information or offers further help to assess what the customer needs," she said. "The e-commerce challenge is to add the extra value. How do you give the customer the feel of the product, the added information and make them feel you are there to meet their needs? Women tend to understand that. They are more client-oriented."

Experts also caution the new e-terrain is not without its challenges to female entrepreneurs, particularly the fact that most IT professionals are men.

"I call it the 'geek-izmo' factor," Harquail said. "The plain fact is that both software and hardware professions remain dominated by men and it's tough for women to fit in. It's not impossible, just tough."

Collins said she sees some gender differences among programmers -- in very broad terms, men tend to design software to please themselves while women tend to design software with the client in mind -- but she believes a woman's approach is more in tune with online needs.

"Now that everyone including grandma is signing up and signing on, we need software to be really, really easy and fun to use," she said. "I think women are more attuned to that."

Maria Lupetin, CEO of Infomaker Inc., an e-business consulting company in Glenview, said many women underestimate their technical skills or are leery about seeking the training they need to compete for jobs in a male-dominated field. She also thinks that women tend to shrink from asking their supervisors for the training they need or job positions they want. She said that women don't have to become programmers or technical experts to work in technology, but they should acquire technical savvy, network among tech professionals and actively look for opportunities.

"Personally, I think women need to get more aggressive," she said. "I don't think women are aggressive enough, especially in the technology fields. I gave a friend of mine some counsel once when she wanted to go after a promotion but hesitated, unsure of her skills or her chances to land it. I guess it worked because she is a vice president now. I said, 'Ask them for what your heart wants and then don't be afraid to go and DO it.'"