Business & Finance
Commentary
11/6/2001
09:37 AM
Lou Bertin
Lou Bertin
Commentary
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The Observer: An Operational IT Flight Plan

Enough theory. CIOs are paying attention only to projects that reduce cost or contribute to the top line. But, Lou Bertin reassures us, that doesn't mean the death of innovation.

In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe's narrator says that when Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra decided to name his spacecraft "Sigma 7," he might as well have named it "Operational 7"; such was Schirra's determination to let nothing that was not absolutely germane to the mission find its way into his flight plan. Unlike one of his predecessors, there would be no niceties such as stargazing or extraneous photography to distract him from his mission to ride that spacecraft up, fly it, and land it on target.

So, it appears, is the prevailing thinking these days where IT strategies and expenditures are concerned. If it's not "operational," participants at InformationWeek roundtables have been telling me, no IT initiative has any chance of being funded, much less implemented.

As the mild-mannered director of IT at a great metropolitan newspaper (whose name is not Clark Kent) told me recently, "If what I'm proposing doesn't drive revenue or produce some efficiency that drops to the bottom line quickly, I may as well save my breath. Anything that doesn't reduce cost or contribute to the top line is a nonstarter. No ifs, ands, or buts."

The thinking behind those draconian evaluation criteria was given crystal-clear voice at another roundtable. One attendee said that his company "isn't dealing with theory anymore. We went through all the consultants' exercises about 'What kind of company do you want to be?' What we're dealing with now is, what do we need to do to remain a company? It's really that simple."

In an environment in which unemployment figures are at decades' high levels, the imperative is to see to it that one doesn't become part of those statistics.

On the other hand, we need not begin sounding the death knell for the Age of Innovation. Far from it. In fact, there's every indication that the next great wave of technology-empowered strategic innovation is upon us already. Though it's being borne by survivalist thinking, the unrelenting pressures for IT staffs to achieve more with less is paying--and will continue to pay--handsome dividends for enterprises great and small.

Why? Because shrinking budgets and head counts have had the marvelous net effect of focusing attention on the here and the now and the real, not on some theoretical (or stylistic) goal.

Consider the last two periods of intense IT investment. One was the late 1998 through early 2000 wave of spending on Y2K remediation and preparedness. The other was the mid-1999 to mid-2001 period of intense investment in "E-anything."

The former paid immediate dividends by providing for business continuity through the chronological shift from the 19s to the 20s; it continues to pay dividends today by providing for business continuity through the unimaginable. The investments were made with very specific goals in mind. The returns on those investments, both intended and unintended, are manifest.

As for the "E" phenomenon, the results are far more mixed and surely less pretty. Investments at some companies (General Electric, Wal-Mart, FedEx, and Fidelity, to name just a few), aimed at embracing the online medium as an adjunct to their established ways of doing business, proved incredibly profitable. That "E" methods eventually replaced some of their existing processes came about only after it was proven beyond doubt that the "E" methodologies could indeed do so. No theory there, merely operational thinking. As for the companies that literally bet the business on becoming the next great E-business, backed up with little more than theory and gobs of venture capital, the results need no rehashing here.

If we're returning to a time when the prevailing ethos is one of substance over style, so be it. If that means returning to an era where thinking is focused on achieving tangible results--and isn't focused unduly on keeping up with the corporate Joneses--that's OK, too. A lawyer's argument could be made that the greatest innovations in 20th-century commerce have come about as a result of coping with horrifically tough times.

A year ago, none among us would have imagined that we'd be dealing with a global economy that's as weak as the one we see today. Eight weeks ago, nobody would have thought that some sense of normalcy (a word whose definition has been irretrievably changed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks) would have returned this quickly to lower Manhattan. Until a month ago, anyone proposing that a piece of paper mail would cause suspicion would have been regarded as a lunatic. But such are the times we live in.

To paraphrase the old saw: "There's nothing like imminent danger to focus one's thinking." The betting here is that focus--on personal and corporate survival, on profitability, and on eventual growth--is the best tonic for what's ailing companies.

Are your IT projects being dumped if they aren't "operational"? What effect is it having on the company's innovative or creative plans? Tell us what's happening in Lou Bertin's discussion forum.

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