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Next-gen Net consulting

A new generation of Net consulting firms is emerging, looking to become the next EDS or Andersen Consulting.

    A new generation of Internet consulting firms is emerging, each aiming to take advantage of the Net to become the next EDS or Andersen Consulting.

    The new crop of Internet services firms includes USWeb, which went public last year and is rapidly buying up regional Web consulting firms; 7-month-old Scient, which snared prestigious board members and CEO Robert Howe from IBM's financial services consulting practice; Viant, formerly known as Silicon Valley Internet Partners; and iXL, an Atlanta-based firm growing rapidly through acquisitions.

    Jack Wilson, editor of ComputerLetter, notes that even though the newcomers are competing with giants like Andersen and EDS, venture capitalists are funding start-ups in the Internet consulting space.

    "They're trying to do in the era of Internet and intranet what Cambridge Technology Partners was able to do in the client-server transition--get really good at the [new] technology," Wilson said.

    That's precisely the opportunity that attracted Bob Gett, CEO of Viant, who left Cambridge Technology Partners two years ago.

    "I left CTP at the height of its success. I was there when we took the client-server, business process reengineering era in the beginning of the 1990s and were able to create the model for that area," Gett said. "I left at its height because the Internet and the digital economy was there and on its doorstep and even CTP could not shift its business model and its culture to attack that new era in a direct way."

    If mainline consulting and systems integration firms have been slow to see the Internet opportunity, today they are quickly slapping the word "Internet" on existing specialty practices.

    For clients moving to the Net, the impetus driver is different, says Paula Boyle, senior analyst of Kinetic Information and author of the book Web Weaving.

    "The business buzz that is driving a lot of this seems to be almost a panic: If we don't get connected, we'll get run over," Boyle said. For executives, the Internet successes of Cisco or Amazon.com are not pleasant visions; they're nightmares of what could happen to them in their own industries.

    "Nobody wants to be in the Barnes and Noble seat, to be the second person to scramble," she added.

    This new generation of consulting firms move beyond Web design shops like Organic Online that emerged three or four years ago to help companies build Web sites as marketing tools.

    The new wave of Internet consulting firms rolls together the strategic elements of traditional management consultants, the design work of creating sites, the integration functions of building a corporate infrastructure that can scale to huge numbers of users, and the outsourcing capabilities of running it all for a client.

    Not every Internet consulting operation does each task, but most do at least three of those. And they describe the opportunity differently--digital economy vs. e-business vs. Internet era.

    USWeb started out buying up high-end Web design shops around the country, but CEO Joe Firmage aspires to become "the Andersen Consulting of the Internet," a vision he's articulated now for more than a year.

    Viant's Gett describes his firm's origins: "We saw the opportunity the Internet specifically created for helping companies of all types reinvent or get advantage through the digital marketplace as well as new companies starting from scratch."

    "We are the original identifiers to integrate business strategy with creative and technical skills," Gett claimed.

    CEO Howe calls Scient a "systems innovator," and the young company is strongest in the financial service industry.

    Scient chief marketing officer Chris Lochhead said time to market is a major consideration for companies that turn to the outside for help on the Web.

    "We spend a matter of weeks for strategy, then we build and deploy in three to six months," Lochhead said. "Even if a client knew what to build, these innovative technologies are so new that they don't have the core skills to build in three to six months."

    Scient customers have became believers in e-business through pilot projects and trials starting in 1995 and 1996, Howe said.

    "Now they say, electronic business is real. We tried the experiments, and now we need to make this more industrial strength," he said.