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4/6/2007
05:30 PM
Rob Preston
Rob Preston
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Down To Business: Are You Part Of The Solution Or Just In Denial?

Business technology pros can be double agents of change--onboard when they're the protagonists, but harsh critics when they perceive themselves as victims.

All around us are people in denial as their industries and companies and processes are rattled to their core. The Big Three U.S. automakers are in no hurry to support a more demand-oriented production model because, well, it's not like the domestic industry has a crisis on its hands. Successful U.S. pharmaceutical companies dismiss generic rivals as bottom feeders, much like U.S. steel and electronics companies did decades ago. As advertisers, viewers, and readers scramble to the Web, many entertainment and media companies are still acting like it's 2000 ... let's just ride this digital wave out until things settle down a skosh.

It's not just management that's in denial. An acquaintance who's a journalist for the local Tribune Co. newspaper hoped beyond hope that some benevolent tycoon would emerge to take over the company-in-decline amid a public auction of its assets. His fantasy: A leading newspaper should be run more like a public trust than a business, and in the face of massive industry upheaval, a monied patriarch might sacrifice profitability to preserve "editorial excellence and integrity." (No such luck, as a hard-nosed real estate maverick emerged last week as the winner of the Tribune auction.)

Consumers can be just as change-averse. How many times have we heard people yearn for a simpler time, when gas station attendants washed our windows and checked our oil; when tellers, not machines, handled our bank transactions; when a friendly voice, not a computer-generated one, provided customer service? Maybe the "progress" of automation isn't to everyone's liking, but if consumers are willing to pay for bygone hand-holding services, companies will figure out a way to deliver them.

Closer to home, business technology professionals are mostly agents of change, in overhauling supply chains, intelligence gathering, lead generation, fulfillment, and the like. Deployments of "invasive" technologies such as Web site monitoring and screening, data mining, RFID tagging, and workforce scheduling improve business productivity, but they raise the hackles of yet another change-averse constituency: privacy and civil liberties groups. As my colleague Bob Evans writes on a kerfuffle surrounding Wal-Mart's use of workforce-scheduling software, this technology may indeed shake up the schedules and even the lives of employees, but if customers are ultimately reaping the benefits, its outside critics won't hold any sway. (Not to argue that the critics are never right, but they often overreact out of fear of the unknown.)

Business technology pros can also be double agents of change--that is, onboard when they're the protagonists, but harsh critics when they perceive themselves as victims. Exhibit A is the globalization of business technology services and jobs. While this column has argued that many companies have been shortsighted in off-loading vital IT services to offshore (and even domestic) suppliers, it has never argued for trying to stop business globalization in its tracks. For one thing, it's futile.

For evidence of this undeniable force, consider last week's application deadline for H-1B work visas, used by tech employers to import talent. Two years ago, the H-1B visa cap was reached in four months; last year in two. This year? In just two days the government received applications for more than twice the quota.

Argue if you like that employers are abusing the H-1B visa program--that the tech talent shortage is the figment of their greed-stained imaginations. Good luck with that. Where there's heavy demand, supply is unstoppable, regardless of the motives. We can pick apart and even reform the H-1B visa program, and we can rail against offshoring as inefficient, counterproductive, debilitating, and (to the radical extreme) un-American. But don't count on reining in globalization by way of policy or protest. Denial can be inefficient, counterproductive, and debilitating as well.

ROB PRESTON, VP/EDITOR IN CHIEF
rpreston@cmp.com

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