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9/4/2003
11:03 PM
Lou Bertin
Lou Bertin
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The Observer: It's That Vision Thing Again

No matter how strong the technology or how astute the business plan, neither will carry the day without visionary people, Lou Bertin says.

Comes, now, a book-length rebuttal to the incendiary Harvard Business Review article of last May, which argued that information technology has become ubiquitous to the point of irrelevancy and is a nonfactor when it comes to providing enterprises any sort of sustainable competitive advantage.

In their recently released book, IT Doesn't Matter: Business Processes Do (Meghan-Kiffer Press, 2003), Howard Smith and Peter Fingar put forth the thesis that, in reality, the importance of IT is increasing markedly, but only as enterprises come to terms with such issues as when, how and why to embrace such "standard" technologies as Web services as mainstream techniques for conducting business.

I could mount a lawyer's argument in favor of either position: that IT doesn't matter or that its importance is increasing based on process refinements.

For the former, I could point to dozens upon dozens of examples I've learned about directly from the perpetrators where blanket investments in IT have brought little in the way of sustainable competitive advantage and, in fact, have become virtual sinkholes in terms of providing any meaningful productivity gains. Just think of all those elaborate data-mart projects or ERP initiatives that now are being undone or re-done and you get the idea.

The latter argument, as put forth by Smith and Fingar, holds that process is key and that the next revolution will be driven by advances in the fundamentals of "how" companies do business.

In support, I could again cite dozens upon dozens of first-hand examples of how organizations have effected near-complete realignments of their internal business processes and by so doing have improved their external relationships with lo the many constituencies within their value chains.

In the end, however, I'd argue that both camps have constructed their points with such infinite fineness that their arguments both topple against the weakest of real-world breezes. Moreover, I'd happily make the case that the very weakness of each camp's thesis proves the validity of the other camp's contention.

IT doesn't provide sustainable competitive advantage? Phooey! What IT doesn't do is guarantee sustainable competitive advantage. Take a look at the revolution in customer service that's taken place over the past five years, to cite just one example, and tell me what part of that wasn't, isn't, and won't continue to be driven by the very ubiquity of strategically deployed enterprise or personal technologies.

To contend that technology has ceased to be a driver of competitive advantage is bunkum. The strings of successes that have gone to the companies most adept and astute in their deployments of information technology will end just as soon as they miss their next wave in terms of assessing how best to apply emerging technologies to existing or future (and here's the opposition's term) business processes. There's little if any tolerance out there for skipping even one technology beat.

So process is everything, then? Nope, and not by a long shot. Yes, processes are critical, but they're hardly be-alls and end-alls, even when backed by the best of technologies. Processes work only when they're meticulously tuned to the realities of whatever markets are served by the enterprises or institutions designing those processes. Processes can and do fail when they, too, fall out of rhythm with reality. Good processes can overcome technological weakness, just as superb technology can obscure process shortfalls, but only for so long. In the end, if process-obsessed organizations aren't backed at both the strategic and tactical levels by well-tuned technology backbones, they, too, are sunk.

What, then, does matter? I'm glad you asked. It says here that what matters today (and will matter tomorrow) is what's always been the determining factor for the success or failure of any endeavor. That factor is vision: specifically, individuals equipped with same.

Technology, no matter how advanced, won't cut it. Processes, no matter how astutely drafted, won't cut it. In the end, it comes down to living, breathing human beings (and the teams they lead or are part of) who are the ultimate determining factors in whether enterprises succeed to the utmost or simply disappear with barely a whimper. It's individuals who make the difference. It's individuals who can make the best of bad technologies, just as its individuals who can work around mangled processes.

I'll rest my case by sharing this observation gleaned at a recent InformationWeek roundtable. The subject was business intelligence and the how's and, particularly, the why's of deploying BI. "Sure," our guest said, "I made the case for business intelligence to our chairman and president. They really liked the idea of knowing where we stand at all times. But they only want to know when things are going well. It got scrapped."

Good technology backed by good processes, doomed by the inexorability of human nature. It's the latter that matters most.


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

To find out more about Lou Bertin, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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