Business Technology: Your Obligation To Keep The Future Alive

That's precisely what's happening within many companies today as an inexorable equation grinds away at any hope of innovation.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

October 11, 2002

4 Min Read

So you and your spouse have taken a long, hard look at family finances for the rest of this year and 2003. Neither of you expects a raise in the coming year, but expenses keep sucking up more and more of what we all used to call disposable income but has lately morphed into already-disposed outflow. The house leaks from the roof to the basement, the insulation is more theory than thick, the electrical system makes knob-and-tube look elegant, and the plumbing is fine as long as nobody turns on a faucet. Taxes and insurance are soaring, your old cars burn more oil than gas, and car insurance is about to rise 6,000% because the twins are just about to get their licenses. Ah, the twins -- one was just accepted at Cal Tech and the other at Columbia. Your investment account's at 20% of where it was in early 2000. So how in the world are you going to come up with the $50,000 "down payment" -- due next week -- against the coming year's college expenses of $80,000.

Alright, enough misery. But how many of you would look at the situation above and say, "It's a tough decision, but I guess the kids just won't be able to go to college?" Or, "We'll just wipe out the retirement fund and work till we're 80?" My bet is the first move would be an aggressive assault on expensive, outdated, ineffective, and grossly underperforming assets: the money-pit house and the clunkers whose monthly repair bills are higher than new-car payments. Because without such a move, your family's future is compromised, diminished, and untenable. Who would stand for that?

Yet that's precisely what's happening within many companies today as an inexorable equation grinds away at any hope of innovation: IT budgets are flat, but the costs of maintaining legacy systems continue to creep up, year after year. In the good old days when budgets jumped 20% per year, who gave a crap? But now, with ultratight budgets and increasing fixed costs, your "discretionary" fund is maybe worth a couple of new printers. And what, then, happens to the future? Will your company be able to compete in a world where customer-oriented innovation is paramount?

Now perhaps your customers and partners will cut you tons of slack when you tell them that it's not your fault that you can't stay current and relevant because you're hemorrhaging money through your old, inflexible systems. Maybe they'll feel sorry for you and actually increase the money they spend with you because they see you're slow-moving and backward and unproductive and astoundingly risk-averse. But I think not.

A couple of weeks back, I cited the question from the University of Michigan's brilliant strategist, C.K. Prahalad: "What's your obligation to keep the future alive?" More and more, I think that could very well be the single defining question for business technologists today: Do we have the will and the creativity to find better ways, to jettison the waste we've been hauling along so cumbersomely and to step decisively into tomorrow, to do more with less -- or do we passively accept our imminent irrelevance?

Some readers have offered great answers to Prahalad's question, but I think it deserves more thought. So keep the replies coming for one more week -- remember, a snazzy InformationWeek polo shirt goes to the winner. Excerpts from the best entries, along with the naming of the winner, will come in next week's column.

Bob Evans
[email protected]

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