Surfing the Waves of e-Change

By Andrew Grant


The latest topic for many conferences at the moment is e- commerce. Like with most changes in the workplace, the greatest challenge may not be the introduction of the system (hardware), but the need for people from the organization to embrace the change. Unfortunately, however, this need is often overlooked. The best systems and equipment in the world won’t help if there isn’t a positive attitude to it. Whilst the executive committee and company GMs and CEOs might marvel at how e-commerce can make their business more profitable, the average person is asking questions like: How will it affect me? What do I need to know? Will I be able it cope with it? How secure is my job?


We have surveyed thousands of company employees, asking them to identify, "Which is more important in a job: Skill or attitude?" 90% have indicated that they believe attitude is the key. It is clear that all the effort to develop skills to cope with the changes e-commerce will bring about will be wasted if companies can’t encourage a positive attitude towards these changes. Often the technical seminars that sing the praises of e-commerce leave the average employee bewildered and overwhelmed.


Surfing has for many years now had a link with e-commerce and the internet. The use of the term is actually more relevant than people may give it credit for, as coping with e-commerce is, indeed, like surfing. Surfing is a unique sport: it is one of the few sports I can think of where the surface underneath you is in a constant state of change. The skill is not so much in trying to predict the conditions (on the macro level) and the future of the wave (on the micro level), as it is in being so in tune in with the general conditions and the wave itself so that when they/it suddenly changes the rider can adapt.

To do this requires much training and practice. On the macro level, when good surfers experience bad or constantly changing conditions they don’t adopt a pessimistic attitude, but rather they accept they have little control over the situation and go out and ride the waves to the best of their ability. When surfers fall off (wipeout), they have to get back on their board quickly before the waves – which were once a source of excitement – become destructive. The experience of a wipeout is soon tucked under any surfer’s belt.


E-commerce is being targeted by governments around the world as the next big issue. Predictions for internet based business is that it will be worth over USD300 billion annually by 2002*, and over 1 billion people will be using the internet by 2010. These new waves of change must be rippling through every company and individual, and it is coming to the point where we will all have to decide; do we harness this wave and learn to ride it, or let it destructively wash us around and leave us high and dry, stranded on some beach of the future?


All this not only has an affect on the company but also the individual. Unless individuals are able to get excited about surfing and enjoy the challenge of change, they may become very seasick. The constant change bobbing around them will make them take their eyes off the horizon and look elsewhere. Many individuals, when filling in our pre-program Needs Analysis, state that the major issue facing their company is high turnover.


Companies are now faced with three types of reactions from employees.

Firstly, there are those who will want to jump ship. Many are easily enticed into trying it out on their own, into the fast world of web-based information and e-commerce. But what is the real issue? What is it that appeals to people, to encourage them to give up high paying jobs and move towards insecure self-employment through the internet? Someone who left his high paying job to become a day trader has said that people are looking for independence. New ads emphasise "freedom", which has become a new democratic revolution. The private investor controls his own destiny, he can make the final call.

The second type of employee needs the stability and feels very threatened by these changes. They will need to develop confidence and assurance that they can cope with the change. The third will readily accept the challenge of change, and see it as an opportunity to develop and grow.


Where does training fit into all this? The individuals wanting freedom and control may soon realise if the company they work for isn’t able to provide these, they may start to look elsewhere. Asian companies, in particular, must face this problem at a deeper level, as company social structure often has an autocratic base, and respect for superiors is a major concern. Upward empowerment will be a crucial factor in this millennium, as well allowing for the development of this sense of freedom and control, it will enable companies to produce better leaders and ensure faster customer service.

The down side is that upward empowerment (developing flat models of leadership) takes a great deal of time and patience. For the individuals wanting stability, there is a need to be introduced to the waves of change the same way any surfer starts…. With the small waves and in a safe environment. Those who are looking for challenges must also be adequately prepared and equipped for when change comes.

Leadership development must allow for experimenting and provide an environment where the mistakes won’t be catastrophic. Like surfing, when beginners learn to surf they don’t start at Pipeline in Hawaii, as a wipeout here would mean certain death. They start where the waves are small and the ocean floor is shallow and sandy. With a bit of coaching and encouragement to get back on the board and try again, it’s not long before it’s possible to ride all kinds of waves, large and small.


We have two choices in facing the waves of the future: we can either let them constantly hit us until they wear us down, or we can learn to ride them.

How willing are you to learn to ride the waves? How quickly can you change tack and ride these new waves, turning a possible threat to a tremendous opportunity?

Copyright Andrew Grant 2000 The human impact of e-commerce

The above is an excerpt is taken from a keynote talk and seminar presented to Accenture and Seagate Technology (Singapore) by Andrew Grant.


T-Thoughts articles may be reproduced with written permission and must also be acknowledged with a web link back to the Tirian pages.

Leave a Reply