Hypesters Put IT Credibility On The Line

Business technology leaders and managers need to get into the habit of underpromising and overdelivering.
No one's more bullish than InformationWeek on the opportunities in front of CIOs and their companies for breakthrough IT innovation. Our recent InformationWeek 500 ranking and profiles chronicled and celebrated some extraordinary best practices across U.S. industries.

But every IT project isn't a home run; every IT investment doesn't pay for itself 10 times over in a matter of months. Meantime, setbacks and screwups are inevitable.

As my colleague Chris Murphy lays out in his "Mistakes" feature: "The best companies stare their IT mistakes straight in the eye. They don't tiptoe around them. They don't rename them 'teaching moments' or 'issues.' They don't play blame games. They lay their mistakes bare so that their teams can improve."

They also don't promise the moon. Think about the ERP and Y2K boondoggles of the 1990s, and more recently all of the hype around Big Data and the Social Enterprise. Those IT-centric efforts had and have the potential to deliver meaningful, even extraordinary business value, but some temperance is in order. Rather than trumpet out-of-the-box "business transformation," forecast incredible cost savings, or insist that the sky will fall without this or that investment, business technology leaders and managers need to go back to underpromising and overdelivering.

They'll have that much more cred the next time they're advocating a big overhaul or investment.

Hype On A Grand Scale

A case study in IT hype on a grand scale is the healthcare industry's promise of hundreds of billions of dollars in savings and improved care with the move to electronic health records. In a recent column in The Wall Street Journal, two respected researchers--one from Harvard University and the other from the University of Pennsylvania--argue that health IT has in fact done little to reduce the cost of care and improve quality.

"As applied researchers and evaluators, we actively work to realize both goals," the authors say. "But this will require an accurate appraisal of the technology's successes and failures, not a mixture of cheerleading and financial pressure by government agencies based on unsubstantiated promises."

It's not that healthcare IT is somehow unimportant; it's an absolutely essential part of doing business and providing care in a modern, electronic world. Bold healthcare IT advances--such as the Clinical Query informatics platform developed by Harvard's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (the No. 1 company in this year's InformationWeek 500) to do population-based data analyses--show the extraordinary potential of IT to improve treatment and even prevent diseases.

But to suggest that digitizing records and processes will improve care and save hospitals and other medical practitioners (and their patients) hundreds of billions of dollars overnight --as the industry promised while lobbying the government to provide financial incentives to EHR buyers--was wishful at best and deceptive at worst.

Such unfulfilled promises, like the ones with ERP and Y2K in a different era and the ones with Big Data and the Social Enterprise today, are a blot on the reputation of business technology in general.

A recent American Airlines announcement shows the problem on a much smaller scale. In touting the fact that its pilots will use iPads to store onboard reference materials and other documentation rather than tote 35-pound bags of paper on every flight, American estimated that the lighter tablets will save the company $1.2 million a year on fuel. Really, by eliminating a sack of paper per flight? Even if such a marginal move could yield that kind of annual savings, American is flying into a stiff headwind when it comes to lightening its flight cargo: Passenger obesity trends alone will more than offset any fuel savings from the lighter tablets. And did American factor the cost of the iPads into its $1.2 million savings estimate?

OK, we're all in the PR business in one way or another. But be careful how far you and your colleagues stretch the truth. Credibility is a very fragile thing.

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