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5/21/2004
02:03 PM
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Secret CIO: Build The System And They Shall Come

Save us from those who seek to solve problems they haven't defined.

Being a product manager isn't an easy life. You spend your day trying to cajole people who don't report to you into meeting their commitments on things they profess are critical to the company but never seem to have on their priority lists.

This situation should be familiar to anyone who has been an IT project manager. Barton Michael Wentworth is a product manager in our domestic operations business. I feel sorry for him for two reasons. The first is that his unthinking parents never figured out (or thought it cute) that his initials spell BMW and thus doomed their offspring to a life of being called Beamer Wentworth. The second reason is that Beamer is cursed with having to put sparkle into a product that has all of the appeal of a week-old pizza.

One of Beamer's less endearing traits is his fixation with seeking solutions to problems and opportunities he hasn't bothered to define. Unfortunately for the company's IT community, most of his great-leap-forward schemes involve building a new system or adopting a technology about which he has just read a paragraph or two. I suspect that as a kid he doted on anti-gravity and captive princesses in far-away galaxies. In any case, it was early morning when he came striding into my office, vigorously waving a page whose ragged edges attested to being torn rapidly out of a magazine.

"Herb," he started off, excitedly, "I've just been reading about RFID, and it seems like a great idea that can breathe life into our customer base. It says here that it will revolutionize the supply chain and that companies not implementing it will be left behind! Have you heard about RFID? Are we are working on it? I'd be happy to run the pilots with my product line!"

I mentally shut my eyes tight to control my tongue. Yes, I responded, I had heard of radio-frequency identification tags. I gave him a brief update on what Wal-Mart and the Department of Defense were doing in their pilot programs. I then asked him to sit down and let me know how he thought the technology could help him improve his business.

Still standing, Beamer excitedly replied that the details could be worked out later, but that, based on his experience, we needed to get a team together quickly so that we did not "lose the first-mover advantage." Recognizing the need to be gentle--and also the possibility that he really might have something this time--I allowed as we would be happy to be involved, although funding was as tight as it always was. I suggested we answer several questions in detail before we flesh out a systems proposal so that the idea would survive the scrutiny it would get when money would have to be spent:

  1. Will an RFID implementation allow us to lower costs or raise prices?
  2. Does it make it more likely that customers will buy from us than our competitors?
  3. Does it bring us customers who have never before used our products?

Beamer seemed a little taken aback and groused about doing "stuff we'd find out during the pilot," but finally realized that I wasn't going to budge. When I added that I would personally act as his sounding board as he built the business case, he smiled his brave smile of acceptance and strode out of my office feeling he had successfully navigated another small pothole in the road a product manager must tread.

Herbert W. Lovelace shares his experiences as CIO of a multibillion-dollar international company (changing most names, including his own, to protect the guilty). Send him E-mail at lovelace@comcast.net.


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Herbert Lovelace's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Herbert Lovelace, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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