The Information Society, 16:5–21, 2000
Copyright ° c 2000 Taylor & Francis
0197-2243/00 $12.00 + .00
Rening and Extending the Business Model With
Information Technology: Dell Computer Corporation
Kenneth L. Kraemer, Jason Dedrick, and Sandra Yamashiro
Center for Research on Information Technology and Organizations (CRITO), Graduate School
of Management, and Department of Information and Computer Science, University of
California, Irvine, Irvine, California, USA
The exceptional performance of Dell Computer in recent years
illustratesan innovative response to a fundamental competitive factor in the personal computer industry—the value of time. This article shows how Dell’s strategies of direct sales and build-to-order
production have proven successful in minimizing inventory and
bringing new products to market quickly, enabling it to increase
market share and achieve high returns on investment. The Dell
case illustrates how one business model may have inherent advantages under particular market conditions, but it also shows the
importance of execution in exploiting those advantages. In particular, Dell’s use of information technology (IT) has been vital to
executing both elements of its business model—direct sales and
build-to-order—and provides valuable insights into how IT can be
applied to achieve speed and exibility in an industry in which time
is critical. Many of the insights gained from this case can be applied
more generally to other time-dependent industries, suggesting that
the ndings from the Dell case will have implications for a growing
number of companies and industries in the future.
build-to-order, business model, clockspeed, customer
relationships, Dell Computer, direct sales, distribution
channel, information technology, time-basedcompetition,
“It isn’t so much that we have a new economy, as we have
a new understanding of the importance of technology in the
economy.” Paul Roemer, quoted in the Wall Street Journal,
“Dell Computer Corporation is perhaps the purest example of the ef ciencies made possible by information technology.” New York Times, 2 January 1997.
The exceptional performance of Dell Computer in
recent years illustrates an innovative response to a
fundamental competitive factor in the personal computer
industry— the value of time. Product life cycles in the personal computer (PC) industry have shrunk from about 22
months in 1988 to 6 months in 1997 (Mendelson & Pillai,
1998), and the price/performance of key components has
continued to double every 18 months or less. As a result,
excess inventory depreciates rapidly. In addition, getting
new, quality products to market on time is critical to maintaining competitiveness in an industry where customers
are willing to pay a premium for the latest technologies
and reward quality by repeat purchases.
Dell’s strategies of direct sales and build-to-order production have proven successful in minimizing inventory
and bringing new products to market quickly, enabling
it to increase market share and achieve high returns on
investment in a highly competitive industry. The impact
on the industry of Dell’s success is seen in the efforts
of other leading PC makers and distributors to develop
their own direct sales and/or build-to-order capabilities
The Dell case illustrates how one business model may
have inherent advantages under particular market conditions, but it also shows the importance of execution in
Received 1 December 1998; accepted 15 July 1999.
The authors gratefully acknowledge the assistance of interviewees
at Dell Computer, the Boeing Company, IBM, Seagate Technology,
Solectron, and Western Digital, as well as the anonymous reviewers of
this manuscript for The Information Society. This researchhas been supported by grants from the CISE/IIS/CSS Division of the U.S. National
Science Foundation and the Industry University Cooperative Research
Program in the Center for Research on Information Technology and
Organizations (CRITO) at the University of California, Irvine. Industry members of the Center include ATL Products, the Boeing Company,
Bristol-Myers Squibb, Canon Information Systems, IBM, Nortel Networks, Rockwell, Seagate Technology, Sun Microsystems, and Systems
Management Specialists (SMS).
Address correspondence to Kenneth L. Kraemer, Graduate School
of Management, Center for Research Information Technology and Organizations, University of California, Irvine, Irvine, CA 92697, USA.
E-mail: [email protected]
K. L. KRAEMER ET AL.
exploiting those advantages. In particular, Dell’s use of information technology (IT) has been vital to executing both
elements of its business model—direct sales and build-toorder—and provides valuable insights into how IT can
be applied to achieve speed and exibility in an industry
in which time is critical. The importance of IT in timedependent industries has been con rmed by Mendelson
and Pillai (1999), who surveyed 67 business units and
found a strong correlation between an industry’s “clockspeed” and the use of IT to enhance internal and external
Many of the insights gained from this case can be applied more generally to other time-dependent industries,
such as fashion clothing, publishing, transportation, food
service, owers, and many segments of the electronics
and communications industry. As more products incorporate digital technology, and more commerce is conducted
electronically, it is likely that more industries and markets
will be characterized by the kind of time-based competition that marks the PC industry (Curry & Kenney, 1999).
This suggests that the ndings from the Dell case will
have implications for a growing number of companies
and industries in the future. 2
TIME-BASED COMPETITION IN THE PC INDUSTRY
The PC industry is driven by rapid technological improvements in components, particularly microprocessors, other
semiconductors, and storage devices. The improved performance of hardware has been matched historically by increased complexity of software, creating demand for the
latest hardware. This means that time is a critical competitive factor in the industry in two ways: rst, excess
inventory loses value (at an estimated 10% per month;
Gutgeld & Beyer, 1995) and costs money; second, products incorporating the most advanced technologies are in
high demand and carry a price premium. As a result, companies that minimize inventory and bring new products to
market faster can reduce costs, increase market share, and
maintain higher margins (Curry & Kenney, 1999).
Two factors come into play in determining the ability of PC companies to manage inventory and introduce
new products. The rst is the standardized, modular nature of the PC. PCs are built from standard components,
using common architectural interfaces determined largely
by Intel, Microsoft, and, earlier, IBM. PC makers also can
outsource much of their production and purchase components from a well-established production network of contract manufacturers and components suppliers (Dedrick &
Kraemer, 1998a; Langlois, 1992). This makes it quite easy
for PC companies to introduce new PCs with the most
advanced technologies. By the 1990s, PC makers could
no longer gain much of an edge by virtue of design and
manufacturing, as everyone had access to the same tech-
Indirect distribution channel of the PC industry.
nical information and supply base. The difference among
PC companies was determined increasingly by the second
factor—the structure of distribution.
The traditional distribution system of the PC industry
is an indirect model often referred to as “the channel”
(Figure 1). The PC maker sells its products to distributors,
who buy products from many manufacturers and then sell
them to a variety of retailers, resellers, system integrators,
and others, who sell products and services to the nal customer. This distribution system was an effective means for
distributing high volumes of PCs with a variety of con gurations to reach a broad customer base.
However, it had inherent weaknesses that left it vulnerable in a time-based competitive environment. First was its
reliance on market forecasting to drive production. Even
the most successful PC makers, such as IBM, Apple, and
Compaq, were chronically bedeviled by their inability to
accurately forecast demand in a market driven by ever
shorter product cycles. They were either caught with short
supplies of hot products, causing them to lose sales to competitors, or stuck with excess inventories of slow sellers,
which clogged the distribution channels and often had to
be sold at a loss to move them out. Even with the best
forecasting, the indirect model was plagued by the need
to hold inventory at each step in the channel in order to
ll orders. In the early 1990s, it was common for PC makers to have up to 90 days of inventory on hand and in the
The high inventory costs and lack of responsiveness of
the indirect channel meant that there was an opportunity
for someone who could nd a way to circumvent the channel. The company that seized this opportunity was Dell,
which pioneered a new business model based on selling
PCs directly to the nal customer, and building the PC only
when an order was received (Figure 2). Selling directly removes two links in the supply chain where inventory could
build up and also enables Dell to know its nal customers,
provide better service to them, and promote repeat or expanded sales to them. Build-to-order production allows
Dell to introduce new technologies as soon as customers
Dell’s direct distribution channel.
REFINING AND EXTENDING THE BUSINESS MODEL WITH IT
want them and makes it possible to adjust production to
demand very quickly. It also means that Dell does not purchase components and assemble PCs until it has received
payment from the customer, giving the company a negative cash conversion cycle in which it receives payment
from customers before it must pay suppliers.
Already a signi cant channel in the early 1980s, the
direct channel increased from 25% in 1984 to 35% of the
PC market in 1998. 3 The use of the Internet as a direct
sales channel is likely to mean continued growth in direct
sales as a share of the PC market, as direct sellers can reach
additional potential customers at a low marginal cost.
DELL COMPUTER: BACKGROUND AND HISTORY
Michael Dell founded Dell in 1984 while he was still a college student at the University of Texas in Austin. From the
beginning, Dell sold directly to the nal customer and built
PCs to users’ speci cations. This basic business model has
not changed over the years, although it has been modi ed
and re ned as the company has grown.
Dell started with telephone sales of upgraded IBMcompatible PCs, then shifted to assembling and marketing
its own brand of PCs in 1985. It provided customers with a
24-hour hotline for complaints and guaranteed 24- to 48hour shipment of replacement parts. As its customer base
grew, Dell also implemented a direct toll-free technical
support line. In 1990, Dell shifted course when it began
selling through retail outlets such as CompUSA, Circuit
City, and Price Club. Revenues grew rapidly, but problems
arose in managing what had become a billion-dollar company, and Dell experienced its rst quarterly loss in 1993
In 1994, Dell concluded that even though it was successful selling through retail channels, it was not making
money doing so. Dell decided to withdraw from the retail
market and return to its roots as a direct seller, a move
that not only helped the company’s pro tability but also
enabled it to put all of its efforts into executing the direct
model. Dell also brought in a new chief operating of cer,
Mort Topfer from Motorola. Topfer led Dell’s efforts to re ne its internal operations and tighten its integration with
suppliers and business partners.
Dell has focused on improving service and support to
its large business customers by installing custom software,
keeping track of customers’ PC inventory, allowing individual business users to order PCs directly rather than
having to go through a central purchasing of ce, leasing
computers, and allowing electronic payment via the Internet. As put by Michael Dell, “We are becoming the PC outsourcing company, not just the PC supplier” (Heidrick &
Struggles, 1997). The company also revamped its design,
manufacturing, procurement, and logistics processes to reduce costs, and speed up the entire supply chain. Finally,
it expanded its markets internationally and developed successful notebook and server product lines.
The result has been an extraordinary run of growth in
revenues, pro ts, and market value for the company. Sales
reached $18.2 billion in 1998, with pro ts of $1.46 billion, and Dell’s share of the worldwide PC market grew
from 3% in 1995 to 9.2% in the rst quarter of 1999.
Dell’s stock price grew by over 40 times from 1994 to
1999, and the company’s market capitalization topped
Dell’s success has garnered the admiration of Wall Street
and made it a favorite subject of the business press, which
has offered a variety of explanations for that success.
Michael Dell himself has weighed in with a 1999 book
titled Direct from Dell: Strategies That Revolutionized an
Industry. Most of these explanations have focused on the
advantages of Dell’s business model, yet the analyses fail
to explain how Dell executes that model and particularly
how it uses IT as a key competitive tool to do so. The remainder of this article uses a case study approach to look
more closely at exactly what constitutes the Dell model,
how the company continues to improve its operations, and
how it uses IT to re ne and extend the direct model.
The case study utilized literature review, buttressed by
interviews with key Dell executives, interviews with selected Dell customers and suppliers, and plant visits. Such
an approach runs the risk of being caught up in the optimistic views of the business press and Dell itself (or himself ), but we sought to maintain healthy skepticism about
what we heard and read. Some of the data in the case relies
directly on Dell as a source, and we made every effort to
check and con rm it with other sources. Other data come
from analyses of the PC industry and of Dell’s strategy and
performance by IDC, McKinsey, Dataquest, Forrester Research, and Hoover’s Company Pro les, or public documents such as annual reports and audited 10-K reports led
by Dell. Descriptions of Dell’s IT practices and organization were provided by Dell IT executives (current and
former). Finally, because Dell is sometimes a source for
independent news stories, we evaluated all stories in terms
of what we knew from industry studies, our interviews,
and our personal knowledge of the PC industry— having
studied the industry in the United States and the AsiaPaci c region for the last 8 years (Dedrick & Kraemer,
It is dif cult to attribute speci c performance results to
speci c IT initiatives in any company, and this case is no
exception. We have reported as accurately and objectively
as possible how Dell uses IT, what bene ts it reports, and
what problems it has experienced. We also acknowledge
that it is dif cult to isolate the speci c effects of IT from
Dell’s business model or its execution. However, we have
tried to develop concrete examples that show logical linkages with IT that permit attributing some results to IT.
K. L. KRAEMER ET AL.
DELL’S BUSINESS MODEL
Other than its unsuccessful venture into the retail channel, Dell has stayed faithful to its original business model,
which combines direct sales and build-to-order production. This business model is simple in concept, but is quite
complex in execution. While other PC makers rely on resellers, retailers, and other agents to carry much of the
burden of marketing and sales, Dell has to reach out to
customers largely through its own efforts. And while other
PC makers can run high-volume assembly lines to achieve
economies of scale, Dell must ll each order to meet customer speci cations, a process that puts heavy demands on
shop oor employees, suppliers, logistical systems, and information systems. It has taken Dell 15 years to achieve
its present skill in making the direct model work, a point
driven home by Michael Dell himself and by the dif culties other rms have had in trying to imitate parts of the
model. A closer look at the direct sales and build-to-order
processes helps illustrate how Dell makes them work individually and in concert with each other.
The direct sales approach is built on two key elements:
direct customer relationships, and products and services
targeted at distinct customer segments. Direct sales means
that Dell must reach out to potential customers, either
through its own sales force or through advertising and other
marketing efforts. Dell does sell through resellers and integrators in some cases, especially outside the United States,
but for the most part it does not use the services of the channel, nor does it support the pro t margins of the channel.
Direct Customer Relationships
Dell’s use of the direct approach reportedly provides it with
nearly a 6% cost advantage compared to indirect sellers
(Kirkpatrick, 1997). It also provides Dell with detailed
knowledge about its customers. 4 Vendors that sell through
resellers and retailers often don’t know who their nal customers are, so they must rely on secondary market research
to identify their own customer base. The direct approach
also allows Dell to identify customer trends early so it can
respond with the desired products before its competitors
The direct approach allows Dell to build a relationship,
which makes it quick and easy for customers to do business
with Dell. IT staff at Boeing report that Dell has adapted
its IT systems, user interfaces, and procurement processes
to Boeing’s, making it easy for Boeing employees to buy
Dell computers because they can use a familiar process.
Dell uses EDI for processing orders directly into its order
management system because Boeing is required to operate
that way (rather than using the Internet) as a federal government/Department of Defense contractor, and because
Boeing staff are familiar with EDI. Dell also has incorporated its product information into Boeing’s in-house procurement catalog, again adjusting to Boeing’s way of doing business. As a result, Dell is able to capture new and
replacement PC business because it is easy to do business
with Dell, and contracting with another vendor would involve switching costs.
The drawback of direct sales is that Dell lacks the extensive reach of the channel, which has thousands of large
and small rms providing sales, marketing, service, and
support to customers of all sizes in all markets. To overcome this problem, Dell has segmented the market by size
and focused much of its own marketing efforts on large
customers who could be reached directly by Dell’s sales
force. Only after establishing a strong brand name with
larger customers and developing the online infrastructure
to reach new customers at a low marginal cost has Dell
seriously targeted the widely diffused small business and
consumer markets. Dell also sells to resellers and integrators in some cases and works with distributors to offer
non-Dell products such as software and peripherals. For
example, Dell is reported to be the second largest reseller of
Hewlett-Packard printers (Schick, 1999). This exibility
helps Dell expand its marketing reach while maintaining
its direct sales strategy for the bulk of its business.
Customer Segmentation for Sales and Service
Dell segments its customers into Relationship, Transaction, and Public/International customers. 6 Dell’s segmentation of customers helps it respond to changes in demand
among different customers, to develop new customer segments, and to “grow” the most pro table segments.
Relationship customers are Fortune 1000 companies
that purchase at least $1 million annually. They currently
number about 50 companies, including Boeing, Exxon,
Ford, Goldman Sachs, MCI, Microsoft, Mobil, Oracle,
Procter & Gamble, Sears, Shell Oil, Toyota, and Wal-Mart.
Relationship customers accounted for 70% of Dell’s sales
in 1997, up from 59% in 1992, re ecting Dell’s emphasis on growing its business with large pro table clients
(Table 1). Dell concentrates its resources on these customers, offering highly customized services to gain and
keep their business.
Relationship customers are serviced by eld-based
sales representatives in customer sites, and an equal number of telephone service representatives is dedicated to
these accounts. Each sales representative is dedicated to
a single customer (or a region in some instances), and
is responsible for understanding its IT environment
and service needs. For instance, about 30 people take care
of Boeing’s 140,000 Dell PCs and operate as its PC
REFINING AND EXTENDING THE BUSINESS MODEL WITH IT
Dell’s global sales characteristics
Net sales ($M) (global)
By market segments
(U.S. market only)
Asia-Paci c 6%
Asia-Paci c 7%
Asia-Paci c 6%
Note: From interviews at Dell Computer Corporation; Das Narayandas and V. Kasturi Rangan, “Dell Computer Corporation,”
Harvard Business School Case No. 9-596-058 (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing, 1995, Rev. March 11, 1996;
Table 4); and Dell Annual Report, Fiscal Year Ending January 1999.
department—forecasting future PC purchases, managing
the current inventory, and securing needed service and
support. 7 Each sales representative at the customer site
is paired with an inside representative at Dell who is responsible for order processing.
Transaction customers, which represent 30% of U.S.
sales, are small and medium-sized enterprises (about 20%)
and home of ce customers and consumers (about 10%).
Transaction customers are served by several thousand inside sales reps who can call up historical sales records to
assist the customers in choosing systems that match their
prior purchase pattern.
International markets are served by a combination of
stand-alone subsidiaries and distribution agreements tailored to local business and government environments. A
more exible approach is needed because the notion of
buying directly from the manufacturer is a new concept
in many international markets. Also, the infrastructure to
support the direct model is lacking. However, Dell has
chosen to enter both China and Brazil with direct sales,
feeling that these large emerging markets will support the
By selling directly, incorporating the right technology
as it becomes available, and timing the changeover well,
Dell can take advantage of higher pro t margins on new
technology while also taking advantage of falling prices
Dell’s production system applies principles of lean manufacturing and just-in-time production, which were rst employed by Japanese manufacturers such as Toyota and have
been applied extensively in the U.S. PC industry. These
principles aim to minimize parts inventories by requiring
suppliers to restock parts only as they are needed, and often to maintain ownership of parts until they are used. In
effect, the PC company is pushing the upstream inventory problem onto the suppliers, a practice that is viable at
least for larger vendors who have the clout to make such
demands (Kraemer & Dedrick, 1998).
Dell’s build-to-order strategy goes even farther than
lean production, however, in order to achieve mass customization of products. Build-to-order requires Dell and
its suppliers to have available speci c components as they
are needed to ll an incoming order. For instance, while
Compaq or IBM might order hard drives in batches of
different models for different production runs, Dell must
have on hand enough of each drive model to quickly ll orders of varying and unpredictable sizes. This requires very
close coordination between Dell’s sales and manufacturing arms and between Dell and its suppliers. It achieves
this by re ning its business processes, developing close
relationships with a limited number of suppliers, and using IT to facilitate communication within and outside the
Dell has continually worked to improve the speed and
exibility of its production system. The build-to-order production system is the focal point of Dell’s business operations, the common contact point for sales, procurement,
logistics, manufacturing, and delivery.
The process is illustrated by what happens when customers place an order via the Internet. They are aided by
con guration management software that enables them to
choose from a menu of hardware and software options. The
con guror ensures the items chosen are compatible with
the rest of the system and prices the system, permitting the
customer to iterate through various choices. They also can
call Customer Service, which can link directly into Dell’s
inventory to determine whether the required components
K. L. KRAEMER ET AL.
are available. If not, a sales representative can push available inventory at a lower price, promote newer components
at a higher price, or provide them at the same price in order
to close the sale. Also, suppliers will be noti ed to restock
After Dell receives an order, the con guration details
are sent to the manufacturing oor. Assembly starts in “kitting” with a chassis and a spec sheet (bill of materials, special instructions, and software to be loaded) for the order
that travels with the chassis throughout the process. The
spec sheet is printed from a computer le that is updated
with information about the speci c components installed
and the employees doing assembly for each machine at
each step in the process. This enables quick identi cation
of the relevant components, suppliers, or employees when
problems develop in assembly or later in system use by
the customer. In kitting, parts such as cables, connectors,
motherboard, and memory are pulled from inventory to go
with the chassis as it moves down the line. In “build and
test,” other components such as hard drive, oppy drive,
CD-ROM, or DVD are inserted.
After all the hardware has been installed, the system is
sent to software downloading where the operating system,
applications, diagnostics, and even customer software are
loaded onto the hard drive. After the software is loaded,
the system is powered and tested, after which it is sent
to “boxing.” Here the completed system is placed in a
box, the keyboard, mouse, external cables, manuals, and
warranties are loaded, the shipping label is placed on the
box, and the box is shipped. An electronic message is sent
to an outside, independent producer of the monitor for
the system to ensure that the monitor is delivered to the
customer at the same time as the system. Once the system
is shipped, customers can log onto Dell’s web site and
track their orders through Federal Express.
To sum up, using direct sales eliminates inventory in the
channel, provides Dell with information on and access to
the nal customer, and allows Dell to offer other services to
the customer. Using build-to-order allows Dell to offer the
latest technologies, which carry a higher margin; allows it
to customize its products to user speci cations; and means
that Dell doesn’t lay out cash for parts until it receives
payment for the PC. Together, direct sales and build-toorder help create a strong relationship between Dell and
its customers, as both require direct interaction and allow
Dell to gather information on its customers’ needs.
Rening the Model: Business Process Improvement
Dell continually re nes the direct model through business
process redesign and continuous process improvement. It
also makes extensive use of IT to support information linkages and enable process improvement throughout the value
Procurement, Logistics, and Inventory. The build-toorder process drives Dell’s supply chain. The ow of orders and production determines how many of each part
and component are needed, and suppliers must plan and
adjust their own manufacturing, procurement, and logistics accordingly. Dell’s supply chain reaches around the
world, and especially across the Paci c, where it reportedly purchased $1.6 billion in systems, parts, and components from Taiwanese companies alone in 1998 (Dell set
to boost, 1999). Managing such a far- ung supply chain to
meet the requirements of build-to-order is critical to Dell’s
success, and requires close coordination and information
sharing with suppliers.
Dell has streamlined both procurement and inventory by
redesigning its computers so that different models utilize
as many of the same components as possible (Zuckerman,
1997). This reduces the number of inventory parts and
the complexity of managing their procurement. Between
1992 and 1997, Dell reduced its 200-plus suppliers by
75%. Fifteen of these are key suppliers who provide about
85% of Dell’s materials. Dell works with these suppliers
in multiyear planning and negotiating, thereby reducing
the complexity of managing its supply chain.
Dell has tough standards for its suppliers— quality must
be world class or a supplier is dropped, the bulk of components must be warehoused within 15 minutes of Dell
factories (McWilliams, 1997), and suppliers must ensure
2 hours of inventory in the plant at all times. These requirements reduce inventory costs for Dell and support
its just-in-time production processes. Through these partnerships and others with transportation companies, Dell
has achieved virtual integration of its operations from inbound logistics to production to outbound logistics and
Product Design and Process Engineering. Dell spends
about $250 million annually on what it calls R&D.8 The
aim is to evaluate new technologies to determine whether,
when, and how to incorporate them into new products;
improve product quality and reliability from components
through nished product; reduce cost throughout the value
chain; and improve the speed of assembly, repair, and servicing. Some illustrations of Dell’s R&D output include
the following product and process improvements:
PCs to reduce the total number of
screws to ve for the entire system.
cables to create more room in the chas· Shortened
sis for ease of assembly, expansion, and replace-
Reduced software download time 75% by using
Reduced number of machine touches by over half
through process redesign.
REFINING AND EXTENDING THE BUSINESS MODEL WITH IT
software to Microsoft Windows 98 to test
all hardware installations in the factory, reducing
customers’ setup time from 45 minutes to 2 or 3
minutes (Dell, 1999).
The ongoing improvements in design and production
processes have helped Dell cut the estimated production
cycle time for a desktop computer—from beginning of the
build process to placement on a delivery truck—to 7 hours
(McWilliams, 1997). At the newest Austin plant, named
Metric12, sometimes a PC can be built, software installed
and tested, and everything packed in a box for shipping
within 5 hours (Ramstad, 1997).
Sales and Service. The customization that occurs in
production is carried over to sales and service. For instance, Dell installs custom software on the machines that
it builds for corporate customers. It also maintains an
inventory of its customers’ computers and has a sales
and engineering staff dedicated to servicing key corporate
customers. 9 It seeks to lower the total cost of ownership
for its corporate customers by helping them manage their
PC inventories and offering technologies that reduce the
cost of hardware and software maintenance in networks
(Dell outlines strategy, 1997).
Dell provides a toll-free technical support line, 30-day
money-back guarantee, and next-day, on-site service (free
for rst year of ownership) (Why Dell is a survivor, 1992).
Dell avoids having to staff a large service and support organization by working with service partners such as Wang,
Unisys, NCR, and BancTec. It has managed its service
operations so well that in the 1997 PC World Reliability
and Service Survey, Dell was ranked as Best Overall in
reliability and service (In PC World’s semi-annual, 1997).
The foregoing improvements in logistics, procurement,
inventory, product design, production processes, sales, and
service are keys to Dell’s success in the PC market. Another is Dell’s use of information and technology to support these improvements and to enable the use of new
business processes such as Internet sales and service. The
result is the re nement and extension of the business model
DELL’S USE OF INFORMATION AND
The direct model is simple in concept but involves great
complexity and precision in actual execution. Thus, Dell’s
management and IT people believe they have to help re ne
and extend—not rede ne—the business model.
Rening the Business Model
Dell uses information to drive operating practices, all the
way from customers and far- ung suppliers to shop oor
and outbound distribution (Rollins, 1998). It has developed performance metrics to analyze production operations, balance inventory between suppliers and customers,
manage cash collection, and monitor pro tability, market
share, and return on invested capital. Dell also continually
monitors margins, average selling price, and selling overhead by customer segment, product, and country. Table 2
outlines how Dell uses IT to re ne its business model.
Dell also uses information to manage relationships with
customers. It outsources customer service but operates as
broker between the customer and the third-party maintainers (TPMs) that actually provide service. Dell’s call center
service people trouble-shoot the customer’s problem and
trigger one electronic message to ship the needed parts
and another to dispatch a TPM to the customer. As a result, Dell knows the kinds of problems customers face,
the parts causing the problems, and the performance of
its TPMs. Dell uses this information to develop computerized sets of frequently asked questions (FAQs) and problem solutions, to train service representatives, to identify
problematic suppliers, and to identify problematic TPMs.
Advanced IT systems are in evidence throughout Dell’s
business processes. Orders are entered by sales representatives or directly by the customer online into the Dell
Order Management System (DOMS). In the DOMS, the
order is rst routed to the nance department, where the
customer’s means of payment is checked. If approved,
the order then goes to engineering, which reviews it to be
sure that the desired con guration is technically feasible.
Then it goes to the plant, where a worker receives a printout of the order, with complete information on hardware
and software con guration and any special requirements.
The order is then checked against inventory to ensure that
the required parts are available in the build area.
Information on the order is available on PCs to the two
builders and one tester in each assembly team. The printout
travels with the parts and the computer as it is assembled,
tested, burned-in, downloaded with software, and packaged for shipping. After the PC is assembled and tested,
an Ethernet cable is attached to download software from
a bank of servers in a nearby room. Corporate customers
can have software preloaded, including their own proprietary software, and can have startup screens and various
interfaces con gured so that the machine is ready to use
out of the box. Finally, the PC is ready to be shipped to the
customer, complete with shipping label and bar code for
the customer. As each build stage is completed, the original order is updated by bar-code scanning of information,
which facilitates tracking the performance of components,
suppliers, and manufacturing and test cells. Each PC is
shipped with a service tag number on it. The customer can
type that number into Dell’s Web site and get a customized
Web page that has all the support information for that PC.
This includes documents with help tree les, diagrams,
K. L. KRAEMER ET AL.
Re nement of the Dell model
Customer orders are transmitted
directly to Dell, where
program does second check
for technical and nancial
Order information travels
with product through the
build process, enabling
inventory control, the meeting
of special customer
requirements, download of
custom software, etc.
Call center automation,
Premier Pages, Dell On-Line,
Dell Product Services (DPS)
Information sharing noti es
suppliers to ship monitors to
arrive with PC
Aggregation of information
includes orders, inventory
throughput, supplier quality,
Dell Logistics System, Lotus
Accurate forecasting of
Segmentation of demand
Early indication of shifts in
Better control of operations
Reduced inventory and transit
Better communication during
Improved monitoring and
evaluation of production and
Optimization of production,
quality, and distribution,
globally and locally
Dell Order Management
System (DOMS), e-mail,
Information to Run the
and graphics of the machine so that customers can solve
many of their own problems (Brandt, 1998).
While the use of IT greatly increases ef ciency in
production processes, it also is increasingly important in
linking Dell to its broader network of suppliers, business partners, and customers, thereby enabling Dell to
achieve “virtual integration” throughout the entire value
chain (Magretta, 1998). Suppliers now have real-time windows into Dell’s information systems and can track sales
of products or components they provide. This enables suppliers to build and ship inventory in response to changes
in demand faster than if they had to wait to receive a purchase order from Dell. Access to Dell’s order information
helps the supplier to better manage its own inventory and
helps both Dell and suppliers to avoid missing out on sales
opportunities because of inventory limitations.
Extending the Business Model
Dell’s IT people do not see themselves as only re ning the
business model, because the execution of the direct model
must continually adapt to new conditions. According to
chief information of cer (CIO) Jerry Gregoire, they are
also involved in extending the business model. This means
nding ways to extend business with existing customers,
to reach new customers, to reach new geographic markets,
and to offer new products and services geared to those
markets (Table 3).
One example of how Dell extends the business model
is its addition of Internet sales to sales through eld reps
and telesales, thereby extending the reach of direct sales.
Internet sales represent another option for customers that
enables Dell to reach people in remote locations where it
does not have eld reps and to reach people who prefer to
shop via the Internet. Yet the Internet enables customers to
easily bump up to telesales if they desire to speak to a telesales representative. Thus, the Internet not only provides an
additional channel to reach customers, but it also provides
a channel that extends customer options for reaching Dell.
A second example is its Internet Web pages for corporate customers, which extend direct sales farther into
the rms’ operations through customization. Dell provides
custom Web pages (called Premier Pages) for over 200 of
its largest relationship customers (Magretta, 1998), and
therefore the IT departments, and in some cases individual employees, of large corporate customers can access a
Dell Web site set up especially for their company—a customized version of the site at www.dell.com. The customer
REFINING AND EXTENDING THE BUSINESS MODEL WITH IT
Extension of the Dell model
and customer segments
across the value chain
Daily and long-term
forecast of demand
Dell Integrated Logistics,
i2 Technologies Rhythm
Information sharing in real
Dell Order Management
Real-time information about
Customized direct order,
service, and support
Inventory of customer PC
Direct order, service, and
Dell Con gurator
Dell Online, Internet
logistics, better forecasting,
reduced supplier risk
Faster, better decisions
and information ows,
streamlined ordering system
Greater customer service,
satisfaction and loyalty,
retention of relationship
sharing within Dell, forward
to customers and backward
to suppliers on a global basis
The entire information
has access to product and service information tailored to
that company, and can order PCs directly from a menu
of con gurations preapproved by the company without
going through normal purchasing channels or paperwork.
The popularity and demand for such customization subsequently led Dell to develop tools to help customers set up
their own customized versions of dell.com, of which there
were reportedly 7000 as of 1998 (Magretta, 1998).
A third example is IT inventory management for relationship customers. Because Dell handles large volumes
of PC sales to some corporate customers, it knows the
computer con gurations at different locations on a worldwide basis and maintains this inventory in its Global Data
Repository. Therefore, corporate customers can get information from Dell on how much they have spent for
what products in what locations over a given time period,
thereby enabling them to better manage and plan replacement of their computing inventory.10
Dell also uses the Internet as a sales channel through its
completely automated Dell Online service. Customers can
go to Dell’s Web page, try out and price various con gurations, and then call in the order or even place the order
directly over the Internet. Started in July 1996, Dell’s Internet sales reached $14 million per day by 1999. 11 The
proportion of these sales that are entirely new sales versus
Same as above
Increased market share in
transaction customers and
Greater ef ciency across the
value chain and globally
a shift from telephone or other sales methods is unclear, but
the per-transaction cost to Dell is reduced when a customer
orders over the Internet rather than through a salesperson.
Dell’s share of the global direct market was 31.3% in
1997 and is expected to increase further as a result of
Internet sales, where the company was an early innovator.
The Internet not only enables Dell to reach new customers,
it also provides a new means of providing service and
support to existing customers.
A broader example of extending the Dell model to customers is selling the notion that large companies can be run
on PC-based networks. Dell runs much of its operations
on its own servers and uses its G-2 architecture to demonstrate the potential of PC networks to corporate customers,
taking many of them on tours of the Metric12 plant. In this
way Dell has a powerful vehicle by which to sell corporate
executives and CIOs not only on buying Dell PCs but also
on outsourcing PC service, support, and management to
DELL’S ORGANIZATION OF IT
Dell’s IT systems serve both to support and to extend the
business model, but aligning its IT with the business model
and with changes in organization is a major challenge.
K. L. KRAEMER ET AL.
Over time, Dell’s IT strategies have evolved in response
to changes in its business and its organizational structure.
Global Centralization of IT
The need to balance control and exibility in the organization has been evident in the evolution of Dell’s information technology systems. In the early 1990s, IT was so
decentralized that management lacked even the basic information needed to make decisions and run the company.
There were a data center and some common applications,
but most of the applications had been developed independently in various user departments.
This extreme IT fragmentation was at odds with Dell’s
organizational structure, which was centralized globally
on a functional basis, with sales, manufacturing, service,
and other functions all reporting directly to Austin. The
company’s growth was outpacing the ability of IT to provide information needed to manage the business. To bring
some order to its IT house, the CIO moved quickly to
implement an information system, called Information to
Run the Business, or IRB, as a rst step in giving Dell’s
managers some basic indicators such as product quality, nancial performance, and product margins. The CIO
then developed a three-phase plan for evolving IT in the
Phase one was to stabilize the current environment by
installing common hardware and operating systems, and
software and tools to manage it. The new infrastructure
was composed of Tandem and Sun servers, with the overall network controlled by Tivoli network management software. Phase two was an interim upgrade aimed at building
capabilities, including DellNet, a virtual private data network owned and operated globally by AT&T; new data
centers in Austin, Ireland, and Penang, Malaysia; and upgraded staff skills to operate in the new environments.
Phase three was the development of next-generation applications that would achieve tighter integration of data
to allow better integration of business functions. At the
core of this process was the decision to adopt an enterprise system—SAP/R3—as a means of developing a uni ed application environment throughout the company. The
attraction of SAP is that it offers a full suite of tightly integrated applications, including nance, human relations,
sales and marketing, manufacturing and distribution, and
customer service and support. Dell was hoping to bring its
disparate IT functions together into one seamless system
The SAP implementation was dubbed the Genesis
Project, and involved a 140-member staff pulled together
from corporate and regional information systems units.
The team had gone as far as implementing the SAP human
resources component when a change in business strategy
caused a reconsideration of the whole project.
Regionalization and IT
In 1995, Dell’s SAP plans were thrown off track by a decision to reorganize the company along regional lines. The
company was broken into four major regions: Americas,
Europe, Asia, and Japan. The Americas region, by far the
biggest (with about $8 billion of Dell’s $12 billion in 1997
sales), was then further subdivided according to business
markets (large business, government/international, small
business). This reorganization was accompanied by a decision to push more authority and responsibility down to
the regional managers, with each region having its own
sales, manufacturing, service, and other functions. Given
responsibility for their own operations, pro ts, and losses,
the regional managers, not surprisingly, wanted to have
control over their own IT budgets and applications as well.
Such a decentralized organization went against the grain
of adopting the highly integrated SAP systems, which require uniform processes throughout the company. It was
feared that SAP would not have the exibility needed to
handle the diversity in business practices in the different
regions (and countries within the regions) and could become an obstacle to growth. As one Dell IT executive
stated, “SAP is like cement, exible when it’s poured but
rigid once it hardens.” Ultimately, the board of directors
told management that it “must not put an information system in place that would jeopardize Dell’s ability to sustain
its desired growth rates.”
The CIO left the company in the summer of 1995 and
chief nancial of cer (CFO) Thomas Meredith managed
Dell’s IT functions directly for almost 2 years while the
Genesis Project continued. Jerry Gregoire was then hired
as vice-president and CIO in early summer of 1997. After
an initial period of reexamination and discussion with regional managers, Gregoire pulled the plug on SAP, except
for the human resources component that was already in
place. Beyond SAP’s incompatibility with the new decentralized organization, Dell’s rapid growth was also an issue
in the decision, as stated by another IT executive: “Dell
was $2.5 billion when the Genesis project was started and
was a $10 billion company by the time of deployment. Deployment is dif cult to handle when a company is growing
that fast. It is dif cult to get business units to be willing
to do business one way worldwide. Business growth led
to segmentation and a customer orientation that was not
consistent with the enterprise (SAP) model.” A 1997 Wall
Street Journal article claimed that Dell canceled the project
after its budget swelled and tests showed that it couldn’t
handle expected sales volumes (White et al., 1997).
Abandoning SAP did not eliminate the need for better
integrated systems, however. The regions themselves were
becoming large companies, and there was still a strong
need for corporate information systems to support top
management decision making within each region as well
REFINING AND EXTENDING THE BUSINESS MODEL WITH IT
as across the company. Something needed to be developed that would allow better data sharing and coordination
without creating a straitjacket that could inhibit growth.
Gregoire’s answer was a new IT architecture called G-2.
Dell’s IT Architecture
According to Gregoire, G-2 is a blueprint for how to architect systems, execute development, and implement rollout
that delivers on the failed promises of client-server computing, that is, low cost to build and manage and easy
to use. Gregoire says that in an environment of 60% annual growth in transactions processed, one cannot afford
IT projects that take 2 years to implement. The G-2 architecture was designed to be exible, meaning that changes
could be made iteratively, without having to shut down
whole systems or retrain workers. The G-2 architecture is
layered, with a Web browser user interface sitting on top
of an applications layer, a message broker, and a database
The key to this structure is the message broker layer,
which is based on an IBM MQ series application integration system. It serves as an information bus, linking all
applications and databases to each other, so they don’t all
have to talk to each other separately. It also allows new data
engines or applications to be added to the system without
having to make changes throughout the system. For instance, a new database on customers (e.g., how much they
have spent on various products in the past) can be added at
the data engine level and be linked via the message broker
to Dell’s customer service representatives’ order management system. This information can be made available as an
extra button on the Web browser interface without needing
to change the users’ applications or retrain the users.
Dell’s G-2 architecture.
The G-2 architecture enables the company to run “bestof-breed applications” rather than only a single enterprise
system. It also makes it possible to “run Dell on Dell,”
using the products that Dell and its strategic partners sell:
Dell servers, desktops, and laptops; Windows NT and the
Explorer Web interface; and Oracle databases. The G-2
architecture has extended the life of Dell’s legacy applications, such as the DOMS and Dell Product Services (DPS),
which are written for Tandem hardware, even as other applications are shifted to Windows NT servers, because the
message broker layer allows these different systems to talk
to each other. Also, migration from legacy applications to
NT-based applications can be done incrementally, migrating individual functions over to new applications one at a
time, rather than having to rewrite entire applications or
move entire databases all at once. Such exibility enables
Dell to expand the capabilities of its information systems
to meet the demands of rapid growth without major disruption to the business’s functioning. Creating and maintaining all of the linkages and interfaces required for this
exibility is reported to be complex and costly, and problems sometimes result, but Dell’s IT people seem to have
made application integration work to serve the company’s
Dell’s IT Organization
Like the company as a whole, the IT is decentralized. Gregoire’s management philosophy is that “all IT is local.”
He argues that when companies have highly centralized IT
departments, there are hundreds of other invisible IT departments scattered around the company, doing whatever
they want with no coordination among them. He prefers
to keep IT decentralized, and follows the 100-person rule,
which states that whenever an IT department gets larger
than 100 people, it is time to break it up. Such a structure
is decentralized, yet is easier to coordinate than hundreds
of invisible units. Still, Dell’s IT people admit that while
their decentralized matrix structure is good for supporting
growth and innovation, it can be hard to maintain control.
There are clearly trade-offs, and Dell has decided that in
such a fast-changing business, it is worth sacri cing some
control in return for greater exibility.
The resulting complexity of Dell’s IT organization is
illustrated by the Dell Americas’ IT structure in Figure 4.
Dell’s IT subunits are organized in a matrix structure, cutting across business functions and markets, sitting on top
of an integrated systems services layer and a functionally
oriented applications layer. The ve functions are product design, manufacturing, sales, service, and corporate
systems, while the three business markets are relationship (large customers), transaction (consumers and small
K. L. KRAEMER ET AL.
Matrix structure of Dell Americas’ IT organization.
businesses), and international/public (non-U.S. markets;
government, education, small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME)). Each of the three markets represents a subdivision of the Americas region, and each must be supported by applications in some or all of the ve functional
The IT System Services functions are those that support the whole business, such as network services, the help
desk, database administration, and the data center. The actual interactions within the matrix structure are less neat
than the gure suggests. For instance, the DOMS application supports both customer services and sales, while sales
commissions applications must be linked to nance and
human resources. However, with Dell’s G-2 architecture,
it is possible to link applications and data to the necessary
functions via the message broker layer.
IT is highly integrated within Dell’s regional operations,
and less so across regions. Still there is a great deal of
data sharing across regions to support corporate functions
and to share useful information throughout the organization. Regional IT executives answer primarily to the
regional business manager, who makes budget decisions
and choices about what types of applications to develop or
adopt. However, CIO Jerry Gregoire maintains the authority to enforce architectural standards across the company
and to ensure that long-term infrastructure projects are
The company must decide to what extent it wants to
standardize applications across the company versus letting
regions make their own choices as to what systems best
suit their needs. So far, there are no hard rules, but in
general, exibility and decentralization are given priority
over standardization. For instance, the DOMS, developed
in the United States, is used in the United Kingdom but
not in France or Germany, and a manufacturing system
that was developed in Europe is used in Asia but not in the
CONTRIBUTIONS OF IT TO DELL’S
The contributions of Dell’s IT investments to the rm’s performance are dif cult to disentangle systematically from
the other inputs to production and from the many process
innovations continually made at all stages of the value
chain. However, it is clear that IT and the information
it provides, along with process improvement, have contributed to Dell’s exceptional performance. The contribution of IT to operational ef ciency is re ected in measures
related to procurement and inventory, manufacturing production, cash management, and administrative overhead.
and inventory: Dell’s days of inven· Procurement
tory dropped from 32 in 1994 to just 6 by the
end of 1998. 12 This inventory level is the lowest
in the industry (Table 4) and re ects the aggressive supply chain management strategies noted
earlier. These strategies are made possible by the
REFINING AND EXTENDING THE BUSINESS MODEL WITH IT
Inventory turnover, 1998
Days cost of goods
sold in inventory
Note: From Hoover’s Online (1999).
on-line, real-time sharing of information on orders and production not only within the company,
but also throughout Dell’s supply chain. This extensive and timely sharing of information through
linked computer systems for procurement, supply,
and order ful llment essentially enables information to substitute for inventory.
Manufacturing: Dell’s production cycle time is
7 hours, on average, while its order turnaround
time is 7 days, on average. The automation of production processes contributes to the speeded-up
Cash management: According to CFO Thomas
Meredith, Dell has a cash conversion cycle of ¡ 8
days.13 This is because Dell often receives payment from a customer on an order before it pays
its suppliers for parts used to ful ll this order. On
average, Dell converts a sales transaction into cash
in less than 24 hours (McWilliams, 1997). In contrast, indirect PC sellers must buy components to
produce PCs, then push the PCs into the channel
and wait for payment.
Administrative overhead: While Dell has grown
tremendously in revenues, it has continually
reduced its administrative overhead, de ned as
SG&A, such that it is among the most ef cient
rms in the industry. Dell’s SG&A declined from
15% in 1993 to 9.8% in 1998. By contrast, over
that same time period, Gateway’s SG&A has increased from 7 to 14%, and Compaq’s SG&A held
steady around 12% until jumping to 20% in 1998
due to the acquisition of Digital Equipment Corporation (which came in with much higher overhead levels). 14
than the consumer (transaction) market between
1991 and 1997. Relationship customers accounted
for 59% of net sales in 1991, whereas they accounted for 70% in 1997. Relationship customers
have been speci cally targeted for growth through
the use of IT to support customer reps in the eld,
for direct orders placement by large corporate customers themselves, for customized service and
support of individual users, and for PC asset management for the corporations.
Sales growth by product line shows a similar pattern. Although desktop PC sales still dominate,
Dell is slowly shifting from sales of desktop PCs
to an increasing proportion of more pro table laptops and servers. Over the past 3 years, the proportion of company revenues from desktops and
workstations has declined from 81% in FY 96 to
73% in FY 97 (Q3).
Sales growth has also occurred in international
markets, which accounted for 27% of Dell’s overall sales in 1990, and 32% in 1998. Dell’s sales
in Europe grew by 72% in 1998, as it moved
into second place in unit sales (GartnerGroup’s
Dataquest, 1999). Dell even managed to expand
its Asia-Paci c sales during the Asian nancial
crisis of 1998.
The overall effectiveness of Dell’s IT-supported direct
model is indicated by the company’s growth in sales and
market share. Over the last 10 years, Dell sales have increased from a mere $389 million in scal year 1990 to
$18.2 billion in scal year 1999 (ending January 1999;
we refer to this as 1998 data in comparative gures to
provide comparability with other companies’ annual data;
other years are adjusted accordingly) (Figure 5) (Hoover’s
Company Pro les, 1998). Net income increased from just
The effectiveness of IT uses aimed at extending the business model is suggested by historical patterns of sales
growth by customer market, product line, and international
highly pro table corporate (relationship)
customer market has exhibited greater growth
FIG. 5. Sales revenue, 1990–1998, in $millions. From
Hoover’s Company Pro les.
K. L. KRAEMER ET AL.
U.S. market share in % (based on unit shipments)
12.6 12.2 13.3 16.9
11.4 a 11.3 a 11.6a 9.2b 8.0 (Q1–3)b
FIG. 6. Net income, 1990–1998, in $millions. From
Hoover’s Company Pro les.
$5 million in scal year 1990 to over $1,460 million in
scal year 1999 (Figure 6).
Table 5 provides the worldwide market shares of selected companies for selected years between 1985 and
1998 and shows the increasing market share of Dell as
well as the growing dominance of Compaq in the PC industry over this period.
In the U.S. market, Dell has pushed its way into the number two spot, with 12.7% of the market in 1998 (Table 6).
Dell has been doing very well in increasing shareholder
value, whether measured by return on invested capital,
earnings per share, or share price growth. Michael Dell believes that return on invested capital (ROIC) is most re ective of shareholder value and has been structuring business
decisions around ROIC for several years (Dell Annual Report, 1997) with strong results. According to Dell’s 1999
annual report, ROIC increased from about 37% in FY1995
to 195% in FY1999. 15
Dell’s earnings per share, a second measure of shareholder value, have shot up from $.05 in FY 1995 to $.53 in
FY 1999 (Hoover’s Online, 1998). The continued dramatic
Note: From Dataquest, various press releases.
a Includes Packard-Bell only; merged with NEC in 1996.
b Includes Packard-Bell/NEC.
growth in Dell’s share price shown in Figure 7 re ects the
market’s recognition of the shareholder value that Dell
has created with the continuing re nement and extension
of the business model.
Dell has grown rapidly to become one of the top three
vendors in the PC industry, and has seen an extraordinary
increase in share price and market valuation. While many
other PC companies have been unable to handle the demands of time-based competition, Dell has continued to
thrive in such an environment. The key to Dell’s success
has been its direct sales and build-to-order business model.
This model is simple in concept but highly complex in its
execution, especially under conditions of rapid growth and
change. Dell has continually re ned and extended its business model while striking a balance between control and
Dell’s use of IT plays a vital role in the implementation
of its business model. The company has used IT to coordinate its build-to-order processes from order taking through
procurement, logistics, production, service, and support.
Doing so has enabled it to reduce inventory, speed up logistics and product cycles, understand user markets, and
Worldwide market share in % (based on unit shipments)
Less than 1
Less than 1
a Dedrick and Kraemer (1998b).
b Dataquest (1998).
c GartnerGroup’s Dataquest (1999).
REFINING AND EXTENDING THE BUSINESS MODEL WITH IT
FIG. 7. Dell’s share price, 1993–1998. From Wall Street Research Net (1998).
offer additional services to customers. It also has used IT
to achieve virtual integration with suppliers and strategic
partners by real-time information sharing. The company
has extended its reach to millions of potential customers
at low marginal cost through its use of the Internet. These
re nements and extensions have been made possible by
the development of a novel IT structure that is exible,
expandable, and still adequately integrated to support key
Decisions about IT at Dell are subject to the demands of
the larger business strategy. Thus, when the company felt
that adopting SAP would limit its exibility, the project
was halted and a new IT strategy was developed. Yet the
IT organization is deeply involved in extending the business model, and it plays more than a mere support function in the company. IT is a key element of many business
strategies, from using the Internet as a marketing channel to giving suppliers a direct link to Dell’s information
systems to being a model for other enterprises to follow.
In fact, Dell’s use of its own PC-based technology to run
much of its own business is a valuable marketing tool to
show customers the capabilities of its product line.
It is very dif cult to separate the impacts of investments in IT from other factors such as changes in business
processes, effective use of human resources, and general
acceptance of the direct model by users. Still, a close examination of Dell’s operations makes it clear that IT is
fundamental to the functioning of the direct model, and
that IT has been a key element in the continued re nement
and extension of that model. It simply would be impossible to coordinate such a complex set of business processes
at such a high speed without using IT extensively.
One question that naturally arises is: How much of
Dell’s success is due to its business model versus its execution of that model? The advantages of direct sales are
highlighted by the dif culties faced by Compaq as it tries
to implement its own build-to-order processes. Compaq
risks alienating the channel that accounts for most of its
sales if it sells direct, so it has tried to develop a hybrid
build-to-order system in concert with key distributors and
resellers. However, it has been unable to improve its inventory turnover and has caused confusion among its customers in the process. Meanwhile, Dell has pushed ahead
to improve its processes and develop new business lines
such as services and online retailing of other companies’
hardware and software. This suggests that Dell’s business
model provides a major advantage in time-based competition. On the other hand, other direct sellers such as Gateway and Micron have not come close to Dell’s performance
in recent years. This suggests that execution is a key factor
in differentiating companies with similar business models.
In the end, Dell has succeeded because of both model
A second question is whether Dell can sustain its performance in the face of new challenges such as the boom
in sub-$1000 (or $500) PCs or a possible shift in demand
from full-featured PCs to simple information appliances.
If customers no longer demand the latest technologies, will
Dell still have an advantage? Dell already appears to be
implicitly responding to that possibility by recasting itself
as a PC outsourcer, emphasizing its service and support
capabilities to corporate customers. It also has opened a
second Web site called GigaBuys.com that sells a variety
of third-party hardware and software. In effect, Dell is already recasting itself as a service and retail company rather
than just a PC maker. In this effort, Dell’s past investments
in IT are particularly important, as it has the infrastructure
to support this new extension of its business and is known
to customers as an Internet-savvy company.
This leads to a third question: Is Dell an exemplar of the
network economy or an anomaly? This can be answered
by looking at three key elements of Dell’s business—direct
sales, build-to-order, and Internet commerce. Direct selling will offer advantages in any industry where clockspeed
is critical and where products, services, or information can
be delivered more quickly by eliminating intermediaries.
Build-to-order production, or mass customization, should
also gain footholds in more industries as companies look
to differentiate their products and avoid pure price competition. Most important, the use of the Internet for marketing, sales, and supply-chain integration will undoubtedly
be embraced by large segments of the economy. The economics of Internet commerce mean that up-front costs may
be high, but marginal costs of transactions are negligible.
Companies such as Dell that are industry leaders in Internet commerce will be able to expand their customer base
K. L. KRAEMER ET AL.
and increase their business with existing companies at a
low marginal cost. They also can reduce the cost of coordinating their supply chain through electronic linkages. This
will enable them to offer incentives to customers and suppliers to do business electronically and continue to drive
their own costs down.
In the long run, Dell might slip up and make mistakes
that allow competitors to pass it by, just as many other
successful IT companies have done. However, the forces
behind Dell’s success will continue to apply to companies and industries in which time is a key competitive
1. Clockspeed is a term attributed to Fine (1998). In Mendelson
and Pillai (1999), clockspeed is determined by three factors: (1) the
rate of decline in input prices, (2) product life cycles, and (3) share of
total revenues that came from products introduced in the previous 12
2. The growing recognition of the signi cance of the Dell case is
highlighted by a recent Wall Street Journal article that describes how
academics, consultants, and industry executives outside the computer
industry are trying to understand what Dell means for their companies
and industries, wondering whether they will be “Dellized” by some
company in their industry, and concerned with how to ensure that they
are the “Deller” rather than the “Dellee.” The article also is the source
of the quote by Paul Roemer at the beginning of this article, in which
he articulates the broader signi cance of cases like Wal-Mart, Dell,
Amazon.com, and Cisco in the economy. See Wysocki (1999).
3. Silverman (1998). Much of the growth was attributed to Dell
and Gateway’s success in McWilliams (1997).
4. Dell not only has data on its customers and potential customers,
but it uses that data regularly. Dell maintains a special database of
its top 50 global customers, which it updates daily and uses to spot
emerging trends among large corporate users. It also has a Global Data
Repository of data on all of its customers, which is updated daily for the
Americas and weekly for Europe and Asia. The respository includes
order information, service information, and units/products by company
and by location. The databases are analyzed regularly by corporate
staff using sophisticated seven-dimension analytical tools in an effort
to identify changes in customer patterns and in leading indicators. Dell
also maintains a rich database compiled from Dun & Bradstreet and
other industry sources on the top 500 global companies that it uses to
selectively target sales efforts.
5. There are about 5000 people in Dell call centers around the
world talking to customers every day and taking orders for machines,
software, and service. Dell’s Austin customer service center has around
2500 people. The orders are analyzed frequently to spot trends early
and to identify patterns among customer segments.
6. It is important to note that only about 10% of Dell’s customers are
individual end users, or individual consumers. Most are large corporate
or institutional customers. While individual end users within these large
corporate and government customers can place orders directly, they do
so usually within a framework of certain standard con gurations of
hardware and software that are predetermined by representatives of IT,
procurement, and user departments within the customer organization.
People who are not familiar with the details of the direct model sometimes think it refers only to “direct sales to individual end users or
consumers” instead of this more complex and nuanced reality. In other
words, the direct notion refers more to the fact that Dell largely (though
not completely) bypasses the traditional distribution channels (distributor, value-added reseller, systems integrator, retailer) rather than that
it goes directly to the individual end user.
7. Magretta (1998). The information on Dell’s relationship with
Boeing was con rmed by author interviews with Boeing personnel.
8. Dell interviews; Magretta (1998, pp. 82–83).
9. Dell interviews.
10. Dell installs equipment tags during assembly for some companies and maintains the inventory records for them through on-site
staff. For most companies, however, Dell simply has an inventory of
what was sold to whom and where; it does not maintain records beyond
the initial purchase, for example, when equipment is moved from one
location, department, of ce, or individual to another.
11. Dell web site: http://www.dell.com/corporate/access/factpak/
index.htm. Michael Dell in keynote speech at the Networld + Interop
show, reported in Smith (1999).
12. Dell Annual Report (1997, 1998); Hoover’s Online (1999).
13. Barr (1998). Cash conversion is measured as follows: Using the
metrics of days of sales outstanding (DSO), days of sales in inventory
(DSI), and days of payables outstanding (DPO), Dell adds DSO and
DSI, then subtracts DPO, to determine the cash conversion cycle.
14. SG&A data from McKinsey & Co., Computer Industry Report
(1994, 1998) and from company pro les of Dell, Compaq, and Gateway
on Hoover’s Online (1999).
15. Dell Annual Report (1999). Hoover’s Online gives Dell’s ROIC
for FY ending in 1998 as 56.1%, while Dell reports 185%. According to
Hoover’s, return on invested capital = net income divided by invested
capital (long-term debt + preferred equity + common stock equity).
Dell does not de ne ROIC in its annual report.
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in 1997, according to Dataquest. Press release, 26 January.
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computer industry: Implications of the Asian production network for
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In PC World’s semi-annual PC reliability and service report, only Dell
rates Best Overall. PC World press release. 1997. PR Newswire,
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