Online Extra: Six Best Web-Smart Practices

These companies show that it doesn't take a tech leader to exploit cutting-edge uses of the Internet to improve their business

With all the excitement about Google (GOOG ), Apple (AAPL ), and blogs these days, we tend to miss the companies that are quietly deploying these same Internet innovations to reinvent their operations. With the Web Smart 50, we shine a light on some of the projects that are taking place in every industry across the globe, from a vineyard in California to an Italian electricity giant. These companies' creative approaches to using the Web provide plenty of lessons. Here are just six best practices:

No. 1: Try New Management Tools

Management is being remade by Web tools, such as "dashboards" and "scorecards." Scorecards are sophisticated systems typically used by people at many levels in the company. Viewed through a Web browser, scorecards gather statistics from different databases about inventory, sales, and customer trends.

Dashboards are Web pages with dials and graphics that visually represent indicators of a business' health. They provide more of an overview, giving managers and employees a look at key indicators -- and alerting them when something goes awry.

Together or separately, dashboards and scorecards can help track how a company is performing, set goals for different units, stimulate new ideas, and motivate managers and employees to do better (see BW Online, 3/4/05, "Happy Trails for Data Wranglers").

No. 2: Open the Doors During Marketing Campaigns

These days, it seems like everyone is creating and publishing online podcasts, videos, and blogs. Tap that creativity during marketing campaigns. By enlisting people to submit their own works, companies can get new ideas and create a buzz around their products or services.

Converse is a classic example of how to make this happen. Last August, the shoe company created an Web site where it solicited 24-second films from anyone with a camera and an idea. The pitch: Converse would put the best ones online -- and as ads on MTV. Each creator whose ad was chosen for TV will get $10,000. Submissions have flooded in, with 1,600 films sent so far. The site gets around 430,000 visitors a month, and traffic to the overall site has jumped 80%.

No. 3: Unleash Collaboration

The Web is redefining relationships, and one of the best ways to take advantage of this is to encourage collaboration through new technologies, such as wikis and blogs. These virtual workspaces enable employees and clients to create, comment on, and revise projects in real time. Procter & Gamble (PG ), which has turned to outside scientific networks for help on R&D projects, now gets 35% of its new products externally, up from 20% four years ago. At financial firm Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, nearly 1,500 people are using wikis instead of e-mail to collaborate on projects.

For those stepping into the collaboration waters for the first time, BusinessWeek's Robert D. Hof has a first-person account in the Web Smart 50 about trying out the collaboration tools used by brand-identity and design firm R.Bird & Co. (see "Teamwork, Supercharged"). Hof's advice above all else: "Keep it simple," and "No matter how good the collaboration tool, you may have to knock some heads to force people out of old habits."

No. 4: Mine for Expertise

Smart companies are pulling together deep profiles of their employees online. This creates a central place that managers, co-workers, and even clients can turn to when they're struggling on a project, looking for specific expertise, or trying to unearth job candidates.

True to form, IBM (IBM ) applied some of the principles of supply-chain management to the database it created for the profiles of its employees in its consulting business. Managers use the database to match consulting jobs with the right consultant, giving customers a range of options to choose from. By the end of next year, between 200,000 and 300,000 employees will have their profiles online, up from 36,000 now.

In the first year, IBM says it saved $500 million by cutting the time needed to find the best consultant, reducing the number of days the average position remains unfilled, and trimming the use of subcontractors.

No. 5: Automation Isn't a Dirty Word

When it comes to customer service, few things are the brunt of more jokes than automated customer care. But it doesn't have to be this way. Done right, automation keeps the customer and the company happy. The simplest example is how the up-and-coming car-sharing service Zipcar ( revamped its phone-reservation system (see BW SmallBiz, Fall 2005, "Hot Wheels").

As demand grew, Zipcar decided to automate by linking the phone system to its Web site and client database, rather than piling on more phone operators. Now when a member calls in, the system uses caller ID to pluck their information from the database. The system would know whether they already have a reservation, to speed up the process of changing or canceling. But when a customer needs to speak with operators, one is still available. Zipcar says the improved customer care has contributed $3.5 million in sales to a company that expects to make $15 million this year.

No. 6 Use the Data

The leading companies are connecting systems so that they can analyze data on financial performance, customers, and competitors to become more efficient and boost revenues. Obvious steps, but companies are coming up with new ways of doing this all the time.

Enel, one of Italy's major electricity utilities, replaced traditional electromechanical meters with new digital meters that are connected to Enel over broadband lines and monitored remotely. Customers know what they're consuming in real time, and Enel can save them money by recommending shifts in power usage from peak to off-peak hours. That has helped the company slash field-service costs and buy electricity more efficiently. It expects savings and other benefits to yield more than 500 million euros annually.

Increasingly, companies that aren't considered tech pioneers are also taking to data-mining. Health-care provider Kaiser Permanente (KP ) is spending $3 billion on a multi-year project to digitize medical records and better manage patient care. By combing through that data, it has come up with interesting trends in patient care and adverse reactions to medicines. For instance, it warned its doctors to stop using Vioxx the year before the pain reliever was recalled.

By Heather Green, Nanette Byrnes, Tim Mullaney, David Kiley, Eve Tahmincioglu, and Michele Conlin

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