COMMENT: Thought Leader - As economic V-day approaches, it'smake-or-break time for US business

It's wake-up time for US business. After September 11, it has been

natural that companies retrench and reevaluate their business priorities

as the economy sorts itself out.



On the economic front what appears most likely, according to many

leading economists, is that instead of a U-shaped recovery in 2002 the

US will experience a rapid V-shaped recovery. An artificially weakened

economy, spurred by massive monetary and fiscal stimuli, will spark a

steeper, faster business recovery, probably by the second quarter of

next year.



The rapid recovery may just be a make-or-break opportunity for

business.



Those who prepare could emerge as the market leaders of tomorrow. Recall

what happened to Sears and Montgomery Ward after World War II. Sears,

spying all the potential buying power of GIs returning to work, expanded

aggressively, and as new-home and other big-ticket sales surged, the

retailer soon eclipsed its once-larger rival, which had retrenched. The

reality of V-shaped recoveries is that, like Orca the whale suddenly

catapulting from the ocean, if you miss it, it's over. So, while still

being thoughtful and cautious about spending, smart companies are

preparing now for rapid deployment when the economic roller coaster

begins to rise.



Smart companies will disregard the adage: out of sight, out of mind.



Now is the worst time to be out of mind with any of your key audiences

and communities of influence. Now is the time to build and maximize your

"mind-share" so that when the upturn arrives, they remember you

first.



Now is not the time for scattergun messages. Identify your company's

true value proposition and focus on communicating that clearly and

concisely.



Then make sure that everyone in the company - from the boardroom to the

factory floor - communicates this consistent message from the same

page.



And spend money on research. Consider EMC, the world leader in

information-storage systems. This year, the Hopkinton, MA company has

endured declining revenues, deep price cuts by major rivals, and the

global business downturn that contributed to a (likely) 75% profit drop.

It doesn't foresee its business rebounding until sometime next year.



Yet EMC still invests heavily in R&D at levels that will in-crease its

tech lead. Why? "When the fog lifts, EMC's technological stature and

market leadership will be stronger than ever," maintains Joe Tucci, its

CEO.



Maintaining market share is also crucial. Verio, the world's largest

internet services provider, has been battered this year by the global

economic softness that has curtained corporate spending on

internet-related systems and services. But Verio and its parent NTT

Communications still invest heavily in developing a global web-hosting

infrastructure so that when times improve, Verio is ready to pounce.



In the long run, it pays to retain talent and make them feel like a

valued part of your mission, rather than lay them off during these rough

times.



Companies that recognize the importance that star talent will play in a

recovery are using alternatives to layoffs - temporary furloughs,

reduced work weeks, flexible schedules, and telecommuting.



A recent Society for Human Resource Management survey indicates that

flex time, compressed work weeks and tele-commuting have gained ground

this year, despite a deteriorating economy.



Thirty-seven percent allow employees to telecommute, up from 26% last

year.



At Cisco Systems, 85% of its workers telecommuted from home at least one

day a week in 2000. In 2001, which brought declining sales and layoffs

to the company's Raleigh, NC facility, Cisco has only strengthened such

programs because, officials say, they enhance productivity.



The past has shown just how much more time-consuming and expensive it is

during periods of economic prosperity to land the talent you need when

everyone else is wooing that same pool.



So consider this your final warning. Start your engine, crank it up, and

prepare to propel to top speed. This time, let the "V" in "V-shaped"

stand for Victory.



Paul Rand is president/CEO of Ketchum/Corporate Technology

Communications, Chicago, and an adjunct professor at DePaul University's

Kellstadt Graduate School of Business.



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