American Management Systems Inc.'s perspectives on electronic commerce, which it developed as a consultant to numerous industries, are now available for sharing.
Hardly alone among technology specialists, AMS wants to underscore that electronic commerce has passed from a speculative question to a hard business reality. It claims some uniqueness in its "horizontal" point of view, encompassing many "vertical" industries such as banking and deriving lessons that can be applied from one segment to another.
To drive the point home, Fairfax, Va.-based AMS said it recently became the first of the major consulting firms to create the position of chief e- commerce officer. Vice president Reginald E. Foster, the 20-year AMS veteran who holds the title, said his job has both an internal and external dimension: marshaling resources within AMS while keeping alert to opportunities in the outside lines of business.
"I look across the whole company horizontally, not as an industry expert," Mr. Foster, 48, explained in an interview.
What AMS learns in its extensive government contracting business, for example, might be of assistance to private-sector companies grappling with networking or data security challenges.
"This e-commerce tsunami is new," Mr. Foster said. "We can offer horizontal leverage-patterns spotted elsewhere can be extrapolated for financial services or other areas."
"Some of the new areas that e-commerce is enabling don't know the boundaries of traditional vertical markets," he said.
The financial industry is one of many in which "a business model that has been stable for decades is changing," with "cost-reduction and service- enhancement opportunities all over."
"How do you deal with something with such potential for change across the entire business?" Mr. Foster said. "We want to help (companies) deal with everything this implies, and with the recognition that some kind of entrepreneur can come along-the way Amazon.com did-who challenges their business model, who doesn't care what that business model is."
AMS seems to be challenging itself in that spirit, launching along with Mr. Foster's appointment a companywide "e-commerce initiative" that could extend to acquisitions and partnerships in the interest of greater payback to AMS and its clients.
"Strategies, tactics, vendor partnerships, and technologies will be cross-pollinated between vertical-market business units," Mr. Foster said when the initiative was announced in November. The idea is to rapidly accelerate AMS' existing e-commerce business base and maximize the vertical units' "ability to share technical resources, research, architectures, methodologies, tools, industry partnerships, knowledge, and staff."
Paul A. Brands, chairman and chief executive officer of AMS, said Mr. Foster's assignment is "to ensure that the full range of AMS' vision, leadership, and expertise is brought to bear on each and every client engagement."
Jerrold Grochow, chief technology officer, said AMS was "among the first to recognize that the e-commerce phenomena are much more than technology- driven." Internet technologies are "catalyzing this revolution, but the critical need is to combine new business approaches with the new technologies."
With 20,000 employees and professional services revenue of $1 billion, AMS is projecting itself as a systems-integration and consulting resource in a league with the major accounting firms, International Business Machines Corp., and other major e-commerce influences.
Mr. Foster is credited with creating AMS' telecommunications industry practice in the 1980s and was most recently that unit's vice president of research and development. He oversaw the company's first experimental connection to the Internet in the early 1990s.
He has direct experience with electronic billing concepts, one banking- and payments-related issue on which he has strong opinions.
"I am convinced that 10 years from now, hundreds of millions of paper bills, whether consumer or business, will not be going by snail mail," Mr. Foster said. "It will look something like e-mail."
The delivery model he foresees is something other than, or modified from, Transpoint, the system owned by First Data Corp., Microsoft Corp., and Citigroup that several banks and billers are testing.
He is uncertain "what standards will win out," but too many benefits can accrue to too many participants for electronic bill presentment and payment not to become a reality.
"Market forces will prevail," Mr. Foster said. "Four or five of our major verticals can't wait for it to work itself out. They will need big- time help getting from point A to point B, and AMS wants to be in the middle of it."
Professing no general financial industry expertise but asserting the ability to extrapolate, Mr. Foster said banks and their competitors are "among the most immediately impacted" by e-commerce phenomena and face significant challenges.
"Electronic commerce is a great leveler," he said. The capital investments, personal contact with customers, and other such factors from the physical world "melt away." Services as traditionally defined can become commoditized.
Virtually all industries have begun to confront the question of how the Internet will affect them. Financial services has the advantage of being well down that analytical road. But its "redefinitions of products and strategies for reaching customers raise larger questions in systems integration," Mr. Foster said, which play to AMS' strengths.
"Electronic commerce phenomena are affecting our different market areas at different rates of speed," he said. On any given problem, AMS hopes to gain advantages from its contacts with "each of five to 15 verticals."
Mr. Foster is optimistic that the security and privacy stumbling blocks to electronic commerce are, or soon will be, eliminated.
"The tools have improved tremendously," he said of advances in data encryption and digital signature technology. Though there may still be a "trust and perception issue," he said, "I don't see this as a major, show- stopping concern.... It looks like a problem that is abating."
Another "business model" that still has to be worked out, Mr. Foster suggested, is that of banks as privacy brokers-vouching for customers' identities in the digital certificates they are assigned for Internet commerce. He is skeptical, for example, about the global trust enterprise, a joint venture of Citibank, Chase Manhattan Corp., Deutsche Bank, and five other multinationals to manage digital certificates in business-to-business e-commerce.
He warns of commoditization: "How are digital certificates going to be competitive, value-priced, and not be copied? The global trust enterprise is eight leading banks, but there are many other entities capable of providing trust. In e-commerce, a lot of the great ideas are easy to copy."
But at least the process of exploration is under way. Mr. Foster advises that in any area of this new world, where "business models are turned upside-down," companies must do more than "re-mechanize what has already been mechanized. You have to try a number of new things. The worst thing would be to cede the experimental mode to the entrepreneurs."