The Internet is:

a) A vehicle for completely transforming society.

b) A source of useful information.

c) A new venue for marketing and commerce.

d) On the verge of collapse.

e) Excedrin headache #3.

I’m guessing most readers of this column would choose “e”. That’s too bad, because the Internet can be a great route out of the corporate slums for all of us in Information Systems.

Aren’t you tired of being viewed as a Money Pit? Focus on reducing costs and increasing productivity and that’s where you’ll stay. Like it or not, lots of companies see us as a necessary evil – money they’d rather avoid spending but are stuck with, like payments on a failing car.

No, you want to hook up with Marketing. That’s where the fun is, because that’s where revenue comes from. Revenue gets respect. Revenue gets glamour. Revenue gets … funding!

Right now, companies see the Internet as an intriguing marketing opportunity. Embrace it and get on board. If you need help, this is a great opportunity to flog my new book, Selling on the ‘Net, (National Textbook Company) due out mid-September, co-authored with my friend, father and great guru of direct marketing, Herschell Gordon Lewis.

Marketing has three basic goals: acquiring new customers, reducing customer defections, and increasing volume with current customers. While you’re lunching with your new marketing-director friend hearing details of your company’s plans for accomplishing these goals, point out that while the Internet has a lot of sizzle, several other technologies have much more potential. “What might those be?” he or she is sure to ask.

I’m glad you asked. Of a long list, here are four.

Data Warehousing: Here’s the perfect platform for a killer marketing database. You can use it strategically, to understand who buys what – information you can use for corporate planning.

You can also use this database for tactical marketing. What you know about each current customer’s recent buying habits helps you create tailored offerings to more effectively increase per-customer volume. You can use the same information for targeted marketing to non-customers, selling each one products and services popular with demographically and psychographically similar current customers.

Electronic Mail: Yes, plain, ordinary e-mail can become a powerful marketing weapon, and no, you don’t have to become a spammer. Do you have a customer newsletter? Offer it to customers via e-mail as an alternative to paper. Just set up a list server and make it easy for customers and prospects to subscribe.

Correspondence with subscribers isn’t spamming, it’s service – they’ve already expressed interest. Send them customer satisfaction surveys by e-mail. Use them as informal focus groups for refining ideas about new products and services. Use your imagination. E-mail, because of its immediacy and informality, cements customer relationships far better than any paper alternative.

Computer Telephone Integration (CTI): Here’s a wonderful technology. It has huge potential, but no logical internal sponsor until you came along. Add screen-pop to your call center (that is, automatically display customer records before transferring calls to call center agents). Add intelligent call transfer, where transferring a customer call from one employee to another also transfers the computer screens.

Add data-directed call routing, where information about a caller in your databases (or data warehouse) determines who should receive the call.

The secret to successful CTI: every customer contact must enhance the relationship. Every customer service interaction becomes a (soft) cross-selling opportunity and every sales interaction becomes a customer service opportunity.

Electronic Data Interchange (EDI): EDI, the electronic exchange of formal documents like purchase orders and invoices, has never lived up to its potential due to the extraordinary difficulty of converting EDI transmissions into database updates. Turn this to your advantage: customers who successfully exchange EDI transaction sets with you are unlikely to leave you for a competitor – it will cost them too much.

There are other customer-facing technologies, too. Let someone else maintain the accounts payable system. In this Olympic year, go for the gold.

Quite a few years ago, I briefly joined a subcommittee of a national telecommunications managers association. The subcommittee’s issue: Telecommunications as a Strategic Resource. (“Telecommunications, in this context, means voice communications technology.)

The first twenty minutes of the meeting consisted of a bunch of telecom managers explaining how important telecommunications is to the organization, and on techniques for communicating this fact to senior management. The short version: if a company loses dial-tone it has a big problem, so telecommunications is strategic.

Because I doze off in meetings if I don’t occasionally speak, I offered a suggestion: “If we want to be viewed as a strategic resource, maybe our first step should be making sure we are a strategic resource.”

As I said, I joined only briefly. They never told me the time and place of the next meeting.

As a character in E.E. “Doc” Smith’s science fiction novels used to say, “We can’t all play first-chair violin. Some of us have to push air through the tubas.” Not everything we do is strategic. Sometimes we have to settle for importance.

IS has three distinct, important roles to play. Borrowing from military and game theory, we can call them Strategic, Tactical, and Logistic contributions to company success.

Logistics is the art of making sure the troops have everything they need to win. It includes getting them to the battlefield on time, making sure they have food and ammunition … all those little details that matter so much when two armies are trying to kill each other.

Translated to the business world, logistics includes everything that supplies employees with the basics they need to do their jobs – telephone service, voice and electronic mail, perhaps a word processor and spreadsheet. Stuff like that. Logistic services don’t add value so much as their absence subtracts value. They’re like plumbing – it’s not strategic, but if the pipes break you have a big mess on your hands.

Tactics covers the detailed maneuvers that have to be orchestrated to win a particular battle. Napoleon, for example, was a master tactician, noted for his ability to pin an opposing force in place through a feint to the front while having his cavalry attack from a different, unexpected direction, confusing his enemy and ultimately destroying it.

In business, tactics includes all core processes and the applications that support them. Do you have an order-entry call center? Improving how you run it gives you a tactical advantage. Do you use a workflow/imaging/document management system? If so, you’re probably using it to tactical advantage. In fact, everything you do to improve the business you’re in today has to do with either logistics or tactics. IS expends most of its time and attention in pursuit of its logistic and tactical roles in the organization. As it should. You have to survive until the future gets here, after all.

How about strategy? That deals with larger-scale objectives. Is your company market, product, or competency driven? That’s a strategic decision. Does it try to define market dynamics, or does it look for unexploited market niches? Does it compete on price or does it try to support high margins through exceptional service? Does it innovate, or perfect and integrate the innovations of others? All of these are strategic issues, as are decisions regarding what new product categories, markets, or competencies will be needed to thrive in the future.

IS has a vital role in helping companies achieve strategic goals. You take the first step, of course, when you understand the difference between IS’s strategic role and its logistic and tactical roles. You take the second when you take the time to understand and internalize the company’s strategy.

That’s when you’re ready to engage in a dialog with your company’s leadership to mutually decide what new technologies, technical capabilities, applications and infrastructure the company will need to achieve its strategic goals.