MAY 2000 IN
RICK ASTER’S WORLD

Web Integration and Business Integrity

Consumers have always cared about the integrity of the companies they do business with, and this has never been more of a concern than when people place orders over the Internet.

The integrity of the company taking the order is the only thing that ensures that the order is filled as promised.

In Internet shopping, it quickly becomes clear that integrity is far more than just honesty. I once placed an order on a web site, and the company simply forgot all of the products in my order except for one of them. When I asked them what had happened, they responded, in effect, “Yes, we messed up your order, it was our mistake, we don’t how it happened, there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do about it, you might want to be more cautious when you place orders with us in the future.” An honest answer? Apparently so. A company with integrity? Hardly. As it happened, I never placed an order with them again.

Honest mistakes can undermine the integrity of a business even faster than greedy intentions can. As Adam Smith pointed out two centuries ago, all economic activity is driven by people’s self-interest, but it still tends to work for the common good. A profit-hungry business that does what it says it will do is a business that you may come to rely upon. But a business where mistakes are expected is a business you will tend to avoid, if only to save yourself the hassle. And a pattern of failure in a business, even one resulting from honest mistakes, quickly becomes a cover for all manner of unethical behavior as workers discover they can get away with and actually profit from intentional “mistakes.”

Web integration has the potential to produce business processes with a previously unknown degree of integrity. With good web integration, the consumer can communicate directly with the machine that has all the information necessary to make the transaction. If the machine, actually a computer system, is programmed for consistency and tested with integrity, then it can make keeping promises an automatic process for a company. When the machine repeats back the transaction requested by the consumer, along with a specific total price, it is almost as if the consumer is dealing directly with the rules that the company operates under. At the same time, the direct communication eliminates most of the potential for error. And when the consumer accepts the transaction, the machine automatically makes sure that the company keeps its part of the deal — in some cases, going as far as attaching the shipping label to the box.

Some old-fashioned business men may be uncomfortable with the complete lack of “wiggle room” this kind of system gives them. And it’s true enough that such practices as charging the same price to every customer could wipe out much of the profit margin in some businesses — automobiles and concert tickets quickly come to mind. But, more often than business managers would like to admit, “wiggle room” actually just means a lack of integrity — and the indecisiveness it implies is a waste of time.

To a profit-hungry business, of course, “waste of time” means “labor cost” — the single largest expense category of most businesses. And so I believe the drive for profit will lead more and more businesses to the simple business integrity that web integration can give them.


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