Textron Inc. is approaching the Internet in an unusual way: business as usual. Ken Bohlen and Graham Allen don't believe in complacency. But they do believe in consistency. Disruptive new technologies, they argue, make back-to-basics business principles more powerful than ever.
It's been a sobering year for the Internet economy. And while plenty of startups still see change-the-world opportunities on the Web, many companies are trying to distill the setbacks of the past year into more sustainable Net strategies. Established companies in particular are focusing on the notion that rewriting the rules is probably less important than following core business principles. Textron Inc., a diversified global giant (annual revenues: $11.6 billion), is taking that idea one step further as it launches an ambitious Internet initiative. The Providence, Rhode Island-based company, whose empire encompasses Bell helicopters, golf and lawn-care products, and commercial financing services, is building its digital strategy on an idea that's so conservative, it's radical: "It's business as usual," declares Ken Bohlen, 47, chief innovation officer.
Bohlen helps lead Textron's "e-business council," a group of 14 executives who are charged with creating an enterprise-wide e-business capability. The program is a mix of internal initiatives and external alliances. Internally, Bohlen and his team are helping various units to incubate ideas, as well as to launch businesses within Textron. The first startup to grow out of that process, AssetControl.com, evolved from the company's financing business. A B2B exchange where businesses can auction off used equipment and excess inventory, AssetControl began as an internal experiment in e-procurement.
Externally, Textron has forged some far-reaching alliances. In early 2000, the company made a landmark $100 million investment in Safeguard Scientifics Inc., thereby gaining access to Safeguard's network of 250 or so Internet-related companies. Textron kicked off the partnership with a five-week off-site meeting called JumpSmart: essentially, an Internet crash course for Textron executives. Textron also held a daylong JumpSmart session for board members soon after the April dotcom meltdown. "Many startups never showed — or even forecast — a profit," says Graham Allen, 34, director of e-business. "Now the tide is changing, and the question for us is, How do we take advantage of that?"
So far, Textron's size has worked to its advantage, allowing Bohlen and his team to leverage the company's organizational resources and financial muscle. But the company's scale also poses challenges. One challenge is ensuring that the entire company (which includes 68,000 people) gets the gospel of "faster, smarter, better." As with all things Internet at Textron, however, the goal is to set attainable expectations. According to Bohlen, "We're not trying to make this into some kind of religious period. The reality is that there are not a lot of new things under the sun. We just do things in a different way."
Cathy Olofson is a regular contributor to Fast Company. Visit Textron inc. on the Web (www.textron.com).
A version of this article appeared in the January 2001 issue of Fast Company magazine.