Down To Business: We're Obsessed With The Short-Term View - InformationWeek

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Rob Preston
Rob Preston
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Down To Business: We're Obsessed With The Short-Term View

This isn't a call for Soviet-style 15-year plans, but there's a huge difference between being adaptable and having the patience of a fourth-grader.

Englishman John Maynard Keynes, whose theories on fine-tuning the economy have been a U.S. policy staple since the Great Depression, once remarked: "In the long run, we're all dead." Today, this Keynesian tenet is taken to absurd extremes, as government, business, and other leaders all but abandon the long-term view.

We're obsessed with near-instant results and gratification. When things don't quite pan out exactly as planned, we're inclined to second-guess ourselves or blame others, to shift course or cut and run, as we lack the support, confidence, or guts to stay a course.

Nowhere is this shortcoming more apparent than in the U.S. presidential campaigns. Results from the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, reflecting just a tiny fraction of the nation's electorate, have turned the race into a frenzied scramble. Front-runners and also-rans alike are tearing up their strategies and behaving impulsively as they pander to voter "trends" and media spin. It makes you wonder how the candidates would react as the chief executive when the heat is really on.

In the world of professional sports, owners and their GMs replace managers and coaches at the first sign of failure. In 2006 Joe Girardi led the Florida Marlins, then the youngest and lowest-paid team in baseball, to playoff contention, only to be fired at season's end when the team's charge came up short. (Six weeks after getting his pink slip, Girardi was named National League Manager of the Year.) Players don't get much more slack. After his first few games in the NBA several years ago, Yao Ming, the top center in pro basketball today, was almost run back to China by critics who expected the 22-year-old, 7-foot, 5-inch expatriate rookie to perform like Bill Russell right out of the gate.

In the business arena, how many moves are made just to pump up the current quarter? Among the most egregious examples of short-term management run amok is the old Computer Associates under Sanjay Kumar, with its 35-day-month sales cycles. But honest executives make shortsighted decisions all the time to please antsy investors and make good on bonus plans.

Execs at public companies are on the shortest leashes, one reason management teams are embracing private equity buyouts. "There's excessive short-term focus in the technology market," Avaya CEO Louis D'Ambrosio told InformationWeek in June following the announcement that private equity firms Silver Lake and TPG Capital had plunked down $8.2 billion for the company. "In this private environment, we can ensure long-term focus from a product innovation perspective and R&D perspective, that we're doing this for the longtime benefit of the customers."

Among business technology organizations, there can be a fine line between long-term plans and sinkholes. We don't ever want to go back to seven-year ERP or system management rollouts. But we also don't want every business department making technology purchases independent of an IT architecture--accumulating, as former Chase CIO Denis O'Leary puts it, "products and platforms that have now become the equivalent of corporate cholesterol."

Short-term thinking in IT stems partly from a lack of continuity in personnel. The latest Society for Information Management survey puts the average tenure of a U.S. CIO at 4.1 years--half a year longer than in the 2006 SIM survey, but hardly a sign that companies are holding to long-term technology leadership or vision. Further down the labor ranks, the commitment to front-line IT managers and staffers is just as tenuous with the rise of outsourcing and offshoring. It's nearly impossible to effect a long-term IT strategy when your people are in constant flux.

This isn't a call for Soviet-style 15-year plans set in granite. There's a huge difference between being adaptable and having the patience of a fourth-grader. While markets and technologies are changing faster than ever, resist the pressure to change with the wind. In the long run, we'll all be better off.

Rob Preston, VP/Editor In Chief
[email protected]

To find out more about Rob Preston, please visit his page.

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