Can We Handle the Truth?

How honest are we about our ability to deal with the problems that have held back business technology alignment for decades?
Posted February 11, 2004

Steve Andriole

Steve Andriole

There's a great scene in the movie "A Few Good Men" when Jack Nicholson tells Tom Cruise that he "can't handle the truth."

What about us? Can we handle the truth?

How honest are we about our ability to deal with the problems that have held business technology alignment back for decades?

I was having dinner with an industry colleague recently and after a couple of glasses of wine, we started to tell each other the truth (or at least versions of the truth that were much more accurate than the ones exchanged before the wine). I described the conversation to a friend who told me that I should have recorded it and published it anonymously for the field to read. Well, here it is -- and try to pretend that my name is Joe Klein (he's the guy who anonymously wrote "Primary Colors" -- the book about the Clinton campaign that also became a movie).

My colleague described the senior management team at his company as really pretty clueless about computing and communications technology -- not in the bits and bytes sense (which, we both agreed, they shouldn't have to understand) -- but in terms of the strategic relationship between business and technology.

Here are some of the observations: "they think technology's a commodity that can be bought at sales" ... "they think that as machines get more powerful they should cost less and less -- and replace more and more people" ... "they think that consultants know more about the company than we do" ... "they think that the people who do technology are really not all that good, that all that 'stuff' is way too complicated, way to quirky, unreliable and way too expensive."

Then he trashed his vendors who seemed to know a lot about processes that he couldn't find at his company, no matter how hard he looked. They also kept him on this upgrade treadmill that was deliberately designed to keep his company in a constant state of churn.

Since he lived in a decentralized world, he argued that the ("god-damned") matrix at his company was worse than the one Keanu Reeves surfs around in, that there were just two many people with bold lines and dotted lines running through them, and that no one can have two or three bosses and survive the corporate jungle for very long. Sipping some wine, he matter-of-factly offered, "It's why people who live in matrix organizations eventually go crazy."

As he reached for his third glass of wine, he ranted about all of the "killer apps" he has to kill. Seems that there are all kinds of people at the company susceptible to vendormarketitis. In the past year alone, he had to kill grid computing, biometric authentication and even a Segue, among a bunch of other things that the inmates barely understood -- but had been told at a cocktail party were killer apps capable of catapulting the company to the "next level."

He railed about his inability to adequately reward excellent -- or punish poor -- performance, how he had to keep hiring more and more people to do fewer and fewer jobs because he couldn't remove anyone. He said that HR wasn't very helpful here. He wondered aloud what HR actually did at the company.

Charged with developing the company's technology strategy he asked the people who run strategic planning to define the "as is" and "to be" business models so he could determine which technology investments should -- and should not -- be made. But the planners complained that it's impossible to know how the company expects to make money in a few years, that no one can predict the future. When he asked the planners how he was expected to optimize technology investments with less-than-specific information they persuaded him to just do the best he could - but to make sure that the overall cost of technology goes down over time.

While everyone wanted to "standardize" technologies and processes, no one wanted to play bad cop; in fact, no one even wanted to play good cop. Lip service was all he got. When push came to shove, everyone wanted to call their own shots. Every time he tried to enlist the support of senior management to re-define technology governance they ran for the hills. A few months later the same execs asked him to quantify the cost savings attributable to the standardization he had promised.

At this point, I drank a third glass of wine.

"People," I said, "it's all about the people."

"How long did it take you to figure that out?" he said.

Sometimes the truth hurts.

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