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4/27/2004
01:02 PM
Lou Bertin
Lou Bertin
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The Observer: What Happened To Our Future?

Don't mortgage the future for short-term gains, Lou Bertin says, but keep technology firmly on fast-forward.

The subject under discussion was outsourcing (and I promise this little missive will not be yet another treatise on same) and the utterance was utterly irresistible. The speaker was the astoundingly insightful and elegant Roy Dunbar, president of intercontinental operations at Eli Lilly and Co. (and erstwhile InformationWeek Chief of the Year prior to his recent promotion), who said that outsourcing, if not done painstakingly strategically, threatens to "cut off an organization's umbilical cord to the future."

Why he stopped at outsourcing is beyond me, because there's a mountain of evidence afoot that enterprises and institutions appear hell-bent on doing the same, whether or not outsourcing is the root cause.

Yes, we're all being confronted with having to do more with less in the way of human, fiscal, and technological resources. Yes, lots of us are being swamped with government regulations that run the gamut from the fiscally sacred to the operationally profane. And yes, the mentality within publicly traded companies no longer merely runs from quarter to quarter, it runs arbitrarily and unpredictably from analyst estimate to analyst estimate (for all the good that management thinking or those analyst estimates do).

But (and it's a HUGE but), what about that imponderable called the future? Tomorrow does arrive. What happens then?

The answer, it appears from my recent experiences, is more of the same, only less enthusiastically and less well. A couple cases in point really hammered the point home for me. The first was just a few weeks ago when years of learning failed me and I somehow allowed myself to be buttonholed by a vendor sales representative standing outside his booth at a conference.

I know his company well, I admire its management tremendously and I thought "What the hey, it might be worth a listen." Boy, was I ever wrong. What began as a largely social conversation turned quickly into a rote product pitch, even though I, as a solo practitioner, have absolutely no plans to acquire enterprise-scale software. And make no mistake, this fella doing the yakking was after a sale. What stunned me from my smiling-faced stupor was when he uttered--with absolutely no trace of irony betrayed in his voice or posture--the following statement: "Just think what this could do for your purchase-order process!"

Fighting back a Lou Costello-quality spit-take of whatever too-weak beverage I was consuming at the time, I gathered myself sufficiently to ask whether he's been encountering lots of companies wracked with purchase-order difficulties these days. His reply: "Sure, lots of 'em. You'd be surprised what messes I see."

My entreaty to the gods of commerce is that he was merely puffing out his misguided chest a little bit to buttress his case. That entreaty, though, goes yet-unheeded because there remain out there in the real world too many pockets of hidebound shortsightedness that do indeed qualify as "messes," to use my tightly wound friend's term.

I've been covering this business for going on 25 years now and my first beat was original equipment manufacturers and systems houses. These little outfits cranked out occasionally terrific software to do exotic things like purchase-order automation. To all those companies out there still struggling with purchase orders, shame on you. Go clean up your messes and make my sales-rep acquaintance happy.

You all should behave more like pharmaceutical companies, where mind-bending research is conducted daily that results in products that arguably contribute more to our quality of life than any other category. Oh, and while you're at it, don't look behind the clinical-trial curtain within the pharmas. There, you'll find heaps of paper-based files that would put even the Collier Brothers to shame (separately, look up the Collier Brothers; true New York City characters from another time and well worth the effort).

Why all the paper among the paragon pharmaceutical providers? It's the way clinical trial data have always been collected and preserved. It conforms to regulations and why change? A few months back, when I facetiously asked a gathering of pharmaceutical IT executives if I should stock up on old IBM Selectrics and reams of carbon paper, one executive sheepishly admitted he keeps a typewriter in his office and probably could dig up a sheet or two of the black stuff. Just a mile or two from where Einstein did the bulk of his work here in the U.S., I stood stunned that these intelligent people were wrestling with tens of thousands of sheets of paper to vouchsafe the safety of products born of the most innovative and inventive uses of the greatest technology the world has to offer.

Somewhere, somehow, so many organizations seem to have consciously or unconsciously cut their umbilici to the future. I always root for my friends to be correct in their prognoses and analyses (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) and I surely do hope my new friend Roy's thinking is heeded and embraced completely. We've been seduced into a conviction that the future is now. It ain't and never was. The future's what's next and it's up to us--individually and collectively--to finally solve that purchase-order dilemma ... and file the carbon copy.


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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