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2020 HINDSIGHT ON Y2K

INTRODUCTION

At the stroke of midnight on December 31, 2004, did you perhaps think back 5 years? Do you remember all the hype and concern that had been expressed during the prior three or more years on what would happen at the witching hour of 23:59:59 on December 31st, 1999? It was said that many involved in the aircraft industry made sure they were not in the air at that precise moment. Were there perhaps computer systems that would not correctly move onwards from 1999/12/31 23:59:59 to 2000/01/01 00:00:01?

It would have been a big surprise of course. Governments had spent massively on publicity to ensure that all would be prepared. Governments and industries had invested inordinate amounts of money and resources to ensure that all systems made the transition successfully. For the previous 24 months, IT workers had enjoyed an unprecedented labour market as supercharged demand chased scarce resources.

In the event, it turned out to be a bit of a non-event. Those billions of dollars that had been spent to smooth the transition had been applied successfully. There were no significant news items on problems caused by the transition. So it was back to business as usual. Or so those who were lost among the trees may have thought. The wiser ones may have realized that the whole forest was on the move. This article discusses this bigger picture.

Y2K - WHAT IT WAS

Y2K was the shorthand expression coined to get everyone's attention on the Year 2000 problem. Many older accounting and software systems had been set up many decades before and recorded only the last two digits of the year. So December 31st, 1999 would be held in a database as perhaps 991231. Simple mathematics could handle any date prior to this and work out say the number of days between two dates in a calculation of interest. However if January 1st, 2000 were to be put in the database as 000101 then the simple mathematics would no longer apply.

In some cases, the problem was even more complex since the hardware might be incapable of storing extra digits to distinguish between the year 2000 and the year 1900. The problem affected not only computers but also any other devices that recorded dates or timed events. Even such devices as smart cards or heart pacemakers might be affected.

Y2K - THE CONSEQUENCES

The wide usage of timing devices meant that this simple transition in time from one century to another might have devastating and even life-threatening results. Companies with aging accounting systems might not be able to record transactions or even run their cash registers. Air traffic controllers might not be able to manage air flights as they flew through the midnight hour. Those with implanted heart pacemakers might find they suddenly stopped working. The problems were pervasive and monumental.

Y2K - THE EFFORTS AND THE RESULTS

Luckily the lead-time of two years or more on the problem was adequate. Teams were constituted to follow detailed action plans to ensure successful transitions. This included:

  • detailed audits of systems, hardware and software,
  • acquisition plans for hardware and software,
  • installation and implementation, and
  • dry runs of systems in the months prior to year's end.

It was very costly and diverted attention away from other important areas and functions. However failure was not acceptable, so all steps had to be taken.

As mentioned, there were no significant failures. Most organizations sailed through the end of the year without a hitch. However at the same time as Y2K was opening there was a parallel event that almost everyone neglected although its effects are even more momentous than Y2K. Let's call it M2K.

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M2K - WHAT'S THAT?

M2K is short for Millennium 2000. The world entered another millennium, or a new period of one thousand years. Some embarked on Millennium projects to mark the transition. However what really defines a new millennium? Perhaps it's only now at the start of 2005 that we can try to put some perspective on what a new millennium means. Comparing January 2005 with January 1995, are there any significant differences that suggest a new millennium is now in place.

Some suggest that the invention of the printing press had a major influence on how the world has since evolved. However the technical efficiency of the Internet in transmitting information from one individual to another means that M2K will have an effect many times that of the introduction of the printing press. The most significant change by far is the new set of world structures and relationships defined by the Internet. Let's use these Internet-related structural and relationship changes as the main indicator of the move into the new millennium that we will call M2K.

A significant fraction of the world's population would agree on this being a massive transition and could relate to this as the definition of the new millennium. The efforts such people are putting into operating effectively in M2K will far outweigh the efforts needed for a successful entry into Y2K. Many others as yet have not realized that there has been any such millennial change, nor do they realize that they must learn to live in this new millennium.

This is not to say that the shape of this new M2K millennium is completely defined as yet. Developments in the Internet occur on a timescale measured in months, rather than years. There are technological and market-driven forces that are continuing to reshape M2K. Here are just a few of the significant movements that should be watched in the months and years to come:

  • The strong exponential growth of the blogging phenomenon has added huge volumes of extra information to that available on the Internet.
  • A negative influence is the continuing attacks by spammers, virus propagators and hackers on the Internet community as a whole.
  • This requires a major counter-acting force of security measures that again reshapes the Internet structure.
  • There is much wider availability of WiFi systems and LAN's (Local Area Networks) and a rapid acceptance of this technology by many sectors of society.
  • We are in the early stages of a search engine war among the three majors, Google, Yahoo! and MSN Search and what they offer to users. Local Search will be a major development for all of them.
  • The Internet Explorer dominance of the web browser market is now broken and other browsers such as Mozilla Firefox will gradually take major market shares.
  • Broadband Internet access gives the possibility of simple "dumb" terminals where all the needs of a user are met by what is supplied by the Internet Service Provider.

Although the technological advances are staggering, behind all this is a much more important social phenomenon. In M2K, individuals have the ability to access a mind-boggling store of information and knowledge, usually for free, and to contact other individuals throughout the world. This allows and indeed demands new ways for businesses to interact with their customers. Gallup was on to this early in the millennium. In March 2001, unfortunately only in a paid-subscription article, they signalled this change with The Power of the Fifth P. The 5th P added to the traditional 4 Marketing P's was People.

More recently Stephen Covey in a recent book, The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, comments on the same phenomenon. Individuals have new power over their communication and information processes and this affects how organizations must interact with them.

M2K - THE CONSEQUENCES

This people empowering effect of M2K has multiple ramifications on many human interactions. One of the most powerful is in the way organizations market to their prospects and customers. Free and abundant communication and knowledge transfer means that customers are now in the driving seat. They can check out competitive offerings when they wish. They control the process.

Unfortunately the Internet is not without attendant problems that it creates for individuals. The flood of information can put stress on individuals as they encounter information overload. How can they try to organize so much information and develop the right answers? This is compounded by all the spammers and propagators of computer viruses. When more than half of all incoming e-mail messages are spam and may have accompanying viruses, this forces individuals to put up their defences.

So traditional selling, which was always tough, becomes almost impossible. Prospects do not want to see or communicate with sales people. As Seth Godin described it, it's now a Permission Marketing world. As the sub-title said, the process is "Turning Strangers Into Friends And Friends Into Customers".

The other important feature in M2K is that the Internet has removed geography as a factor in many markets. As a potential customer, you can look around the world for suppliers. Conversely if you're a manufacturer, then you must expect to see competitors from a much bigger region pursuing your customers close to home.

Unless your organization realizes this is now the nature of markets, the consequences may be disastrous. At best, your selling efforts will be very ineffective. At worst, you will leave the field completely open for your competitors.

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M2K - THE EFFORTS

So in general how much effort have organizations put in to being ready to profit from this new millennium, M2K. For most, the answer is relatively little effort. For some, the organization structure and the role of sales representatives may well be little changed from what was in place ten years ago. Most companies now have a website of some kind but for so many, their website is just an electronic catalogue.

WHY SO MUCH ON Y2K AND SO LITTLE ON M2K?

The opportunities and the threats in M2K are so great that any company should be investing in M2K many times the effort it put into being ready for Y2K. This is rarely the case. There are two major reasons for this.

Firstly the Y2K problem was clearly urgent. It had to be solved with an operating solution before December 31, 1999. Otherwise the company would cease to operate. There is no absolute deadline by which a company should be able to operate effectively in M2K.

The second reason is less obvious but affects a large number of similar business situations. The Y2K problem concerns the internal operating systems of a company. A failure will be clearly visible and directly 'in the face' of everyone in the company. Such problems tend to get handled faster than those that are 'outside' the company. M2K is concerned with the nature of your marketplace and the nature of the competitive environment you are operating in. If your company is not alert, no one may notice that the enemy is at the gates.

WHAT YOUR COMPANY NEEDS TO DO FOR M2K

If your company is one that has not readied itself for this new millennium, M2K, then significant effort will be required in at least 4 areas. Thankfully unlike the efforts involved in preparing for Y2K, which were only expenses, the efforts for M2K are investments that will produce very large Returns on Investment (ROI).

  • The Right Sales Force - Selling to prospects is now replaced by helping potential purchasers to buy. This requires a different skill set and even different sales people to operate at maximum effectiveness.
  • A Selling effective Website - Your web pages should be seen as your front-line troops. Your website should be highly visible on the Internet, both directly and via the search engines. It makes the first contact with many prospects and must convert surfers into prospects who contact you to initiate a purchase
  • E-mail communications - Your company needs to be maintaining an 'open line' with your present and future customers. People put walls around themselves to keep out the flood of spammers and telemarketers. So this requires effort to be seen as a privileged source of useful business intelligence so that your e-mail reminders get through to your customer contacts.
  • Customer Relationship Management (CRM) - People respond better when they're treated as people rather than numbers or faceless individuals in a mass market. A simple Customer Relationship Management system can ensure your company 'remembers' exactly who your contacts are and what contacts you have had with them. Such a system is essential for a high performance selling process.

CONCLUSION

Your organization should by now have put in more effort to profit from M2K than it invested in avoiding the problem of Y2K. Not handling the Y2K problem meant sudden death. Not handling the opportunities in M2K is not immediately fatal but it will probably result in a slow, lingering death for your company. As Laotse said, "Even the journey of a 1000 miles starts with the first step".

SMM will be happy to help you figure out that first step. Our help can be configured to meet exactly the needs you have. Our strengths, experience, creativity and practical common sense can complement those of your company. So write us a Message today on what you're looking for without obligation.

Barry Welford

Added to site 5 January 2005

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