Keep the best of the new in the drive to be more efficient, says Lou Bertin.

Lou Bertin, Contributor

June 13, 2003

4 Min Read

As rare as sightings of the extraordinarily elusive yellow-fronted bowerbird are sightings of the remarkably useful interrobang.

For the uninitiated, the interrobang is a punctuation mark intended to convey incredulity. Dust off a typewriter and overstrike a question mark with an exclamation point and you have a depiction of what the interrobang looks like. And, with (a nondiscredited) credit to a long-ago piece that appeared in The New York Times, the interrobang is classically used for a statement such as this to the wearer of an unlikely piece of headgear: "You call that a hat [insert interrobang here]"

With the interrobang foremost in my mind as the closing bit of punctuation for my next pronouncement, I can only say to lots of enterprises out there "You call this progress".

My incredulity at the current definition of "progress" is based on the remarkable amount of retrogression that's afoot out there in the name (all terms actually used by readers in the past 30 days) of "tweaking" or "partial upgrades" or "re-integration" (my personal favorite) of business tools and processes.

Granted, these are times where grand projects involving enterprise IT are few and far between and there's no need to rehash the why's, the wherefore's, and the shortsightedness that are behind the near-complete lack of strategic IT initiatives.

Rather, enterprises have largely turned to smaller projects designed as much, it seems, to keep IT staffs busy as to truly advance the enterprise's cause. How many of you, I wonder, have spent time tweaking your E-mail systems lately? Or "upgraded" online content filters? Or poked around to "improve" the workflow within departments?

If you're anything like the readers I talk with regularly, you've been doing lots and lots of that over the past six months, either out of desire to see to it that even shrunken budgets are fully expended or out of something akin to boredom, idle hands being the devil's tools and all that.

Well, there are lots of us here to tell you that the lack of motivation (or, worse, the lack of three-dimensional understanding of the how's and why's of E-mail or content flow or departmental operations) is showing. There's nothing wrong with making modest modifications to what already exists in the absence of the ability and wherewithal to effect a complete overhaul, is there? Sometimes, the answer is a decided "Yes!"

Can't afford to re-do the kitchen? Well, there's nothing wrong with painting the molding, cleaning out the drawers, and fixing a few hinges until the cash flow loosens a bit, right? Unless you're sure of what you're doing--and are fully committed to doing the job correctly--there's plenty wrong with fiddling for fiddling's sake.

I offer as an example the epidemic of new E-mail filters that have been installed at enterprises great and small. There's nothing at all wrong with upgrading filtering of incoming content. It saves on overhead, makes users (in theory) more productive, and is a necessary small step toward the elimination of spam, not to mention a big step toward improving system security. What could be wrong?

Plenty, it says here. I think of the tale a colleague told me of the agency RFP that never made it to her inbox because of the new filter installed at her company that blocked outside mail from addresses. She had no idea she was invited to bid on a significant contract until her longtime agency contact phoned to ask why he hadn't heard a thing from one of his preferred providers. The poor old telephone functioning more effectively than her new and improved E-mail system. Imagine! Yet, as she laughingly recalled, the respite from unwanted E-mail offering nostrums that either add or subtract inches from one's anatomy, reduce mortgage rates, or offer millions from relatives of deposed government figures lasted perhaps a single day.

Or the tale of a very close contact who does lots of contract work for a company where he used to work. In the name of "progress" the workflow upgrade undertaken by (or, likelier) imposed upon his client's accounting department saw him being asked to fund portions of certain projects up-front. And, by the way, the client said we'll no longer accept other than paper documentation for out-of-pocket expenses. Again, there's nothing wrong with a company altering its processes to temporarily off-load some up-front expenses, but what definition of '"progress" incorporates eliminating online billing in favor of having contractors submit scraps of paper?

I'm certain there are thousands of examples you're citing to yourselves as you read this, and I trust the point has been made.

My cohort Bob Evans wrote compellingly in his space some weeks back about how we cannot recapture the past, but we can and must shape the future. There's no arguing with his thesis. Let's simply make certain that we don't--as we're seemingly compelled to--reshape the future in the form of the worst elements of what we thought we'd left behind.

"This is progress ... "

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