I'm in Paris for the "E-Services" 2000 conference, with around 1000 other delegates. It is the sort of event I would have wanted to go to normally, but might have found it hard to spare the time. But at the moment, that is not a problem.
There is a very high-powered list of speakers, including Carly Fiorina, CEO of Hewlett-Packard, the President of Nokia, Dick Brown of EDS, and Mr. Hayek who founded Swatch. As is often the case, the most interesting turns out to be one I'd never heard of- Michael Dertouzos, the Director of the MIT Lab for Computer Science.
He has obviously been around a while as a technology guru, and is fascinating as he explains why what we see now with the internet is only a few percent of the eventual impact it will have. In particular, automation is at a very early stage - you can't just ask your PC to go off and surf the net, interrogate various sites and come back with two tickets booked to Paris next Friday at the best price*. You have to do much of the activity yourself. That will change, and the automated version will take seconds. This will have huge benefits but will also potentially drive major job cuts in many administrative areas.
Purchasing is clearly being touted as the "killer application" for the new Internet B2B world. The sort of stuff I have used in presentations for years, talking about the importance of purchasing and our contribution to the bottom line, is now being used by software and hardware company MD's trying to sell their products and services. It seems a little sad that within the profession we failed for many years to get the appropriate exposure and profile, but now the consultants and IT companies have "discovered" purchasing, suddenly it is headline news! Never mind, it all bodes well for the job market.
However, there is clearly too much hype around, particularly about the industry Internet "exchanges" which are springing up where competing companies, such as in the car industry, are coming together to form technology-driven communities. They will define common standards for dealing with suppliers, share information and so on. I can see some real issues- is this anti-competitive behaviour, for a start.
I am very pleased when Niko Sollner, the top man in A.T.Kearney supply-chain consulting, pours cold water on industry (vertical) exchanges, and says the participants seem to have forgotten about the concept of competitive advantage. I agree - I thought a key objective for my team was to buy stuff better than our rivals at Barclays so that NatWest has that advantage. I don't particularly want to share what I'm doing with the Barclays Purchasing Director (lovely chap though he is....!)
We have dinner in the Conciergerie where prisoners were housed during the revolution. The dinner, and indeed the lunches at the conference venue underneath the Louvre are most peculiar. Given that they have to feed around 1000 people fairly quickly, I would have thought that a hearty buffet, or big vats of casserole would have been the quickest and easiest solution. But no, being France, everything is delicious but tiny. At lunch, we have minuscule pieces of quiche, minute vol au vents, and Lilliputian pastries. Of course this means one needs about 38 items to feel halfway satisfied - and the plates are tiny, so people end up grazing at the serving tables. Then others can't get at the food, and the whole thing deteriorates into a cross between the Eton Wall game and a French ski-lift queue at half term.
In the coach from the hotel, I sit next to a pleasant young English guy who I take to be a young systems engineer or similar. Eventually I discover he has already built up and sold two IT companies and is a millionaire. He looks about 19 to me; I must be getting old. You have to be very careful not to make instant judgements about people.
I also meet an old colleague from Mars; we stare at each other for some time until we make the connection. Bill was a marketing manager at Mars, and a very good footballer. He is now running the new Jordan Formula One branded goods business; getting us to buy Jordan clothes and other stuff I assume. This whole issue of definign a company’s "real" business is fascinating. Is Jordan a car racing business or a branded luxury goods company? Is Tesco a supermarket or a financial services company?
* 2020 comment- surprisingly, you still can't do exactly this