Down To Business: Tell IT Like It Is, Not How You Would Like IT To Be

The industry is going to have to learn how to let its guard down, an especially tall order when communications are sanitized by lawyers, compliance officers, and PR handlers.
The high point of this year's presidential race came not on the campaign trail, nor during one of the three nationally televised debates. It came a couple of weeks ago at the Alfred E. Smith charity dinner in New York City, where the two candidates poked fun at themselves and otherwise were allowed to reveal they aren't perfect.

Barack Obama, asserting that his own "greatest strength would be my humility," dispelled rumors that he was born in a manger, saying he "was actually born on Krypton and sent here by my father, Jor-El, to save the planet Earth." John McCain asserted that "Joe the Plumber" would indeed be hit by higher taxes under an Obama administration, as the now-famous pipe-fitter had "recently signed a very lucrative contract with a wealthy couple to handle all the work on all seven of their houses."

Their remarks were meticulously scripted, of course, and immediately after the white-tie affair, each candidate rushed to the nearest phone booth to change back into his cape and tights. But for one night, at least, the American public was treated to some refreshing self-deprecation and self-awareness. If only the campaign had more of it.

Before we're too critical of Obama and McCain for the way they and their teams have micromanaged their personas and messages, let's take a look in the mirror. How many of our organizations are willing or able to make public our slightest imperfections--projects, hires, technologies, and other decisions gone awry?

Instead, every technology deployment renders a transformation--bold new ideas unleashed, new revenues and efficiencies realized, old costs subdued, users happy as can be. It's the sort of over-the-top positive spin for which we criticize our technology vendors, whose every minor upgrade is a breakthrough and every new approach is a paradigm shift. Sitting through a recent meeting with third-party software developers on an important Web project, I was struck by their absolute, unshakable confidence in their ability to deliver everything we asked them to deliver, no matter how far it was outside their traditional scope. In the end, their we-can-do-it-all tack not only lacked credibility, but it also made me less confident in their abilities.

What the business technology profession needs (at the risk of sounding like a family therapist) is a more honest dialogue. It needs more authenticity, more straight shooters. Readers tell InformationWeek that they want more coverage and discussion of what not to do, not just gleaming success stories. Rather than risk derision, such openness will earn people's respect and trust.

The industry--IT vendors and customers alike--is going to have to learn how to get more comfortable letting its guard down. Granted, that's an especially tall order when communications are sanitized by lawyers, compliance officers, and PR handlers. But we must get better at communicating the challenges as well as the triumphs.

To seed the conversation, in a week we'll start a regular feature titled "Our Biggest Mistake," where we'll share a short anecdote provided by an InformationWeek 500 technology organization. (Yes, even the best IT organizations make mistakes.) Runaway ERP projects, ill-conceived open source initiatives, and improperly planned VoIP rollouts are just a few of their small tales of woe.

Since few companies are comfortable yet with exposing their flaws, those anecdotes will be provided without mention of the principals, but hopefully you'll still learn a thing or two from the missteps others have taken. If you'd like to weigh in with your organization's own foibles and blunders (and course corrections)--anonymously, if you so choose--please e-mail me at the address below. We're not trying to make anyone look bad, just human. If it's any comfort, you're not alone.

Rob Preston,
VP and Editor in Chief
[email protected]

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

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