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Tech Industry

Watch out when technology runs amok

Peter Burris cautions that dashed expectations could drive some organizations to toss the information baby out with the technology bathwater.

How important is information technology to business?

Big question--especially during difficult economic times. My bias is that information technology is critical to business. However, as the dot-bomb era has revealed, nothing destroys business value, and individual wealth, faster than technology run amok.

But while executives should be angry at the dashed promises of the "Web rush," the great danger facing organizations today is that the information baby gets thrown out with the technology bathwater.

Information is the resource that repeatedly separates market winners from losers. A company that knows more about itself, partners, customers and competitors will always be more agile and successful than a company with lots of balance sheet assets but limited knowledge of how to apply them.

That's true even if those assets are computer-related. More technology is not better. If one stacked all the PDAs discarded in the last three years into a pile, it would probably stretch about 120 miles high.

I'm picking on PDAs simply because I've been through about a foot of the damn things. PDAs aren't inherently bad. But they aren't generating any business value if they become just another workday distraction.

And ultimately, that's the test that decision makers must apply to every technology decision: Is this piece of hardware or software--this system--going to be a business distraction? Will it make the business more productive? Will customers be less inclined to switch to competitors? Will partners change their behaviors to suit our needs?

Great information technology reliably and predictably captures, processes and delivers information to business agents--folks who get stuff done. It is easily integrated into an employee's workday. It is compelling to use. It fosters individual work creativity without undermining basic governance principles. It is learned primarily through use. Usually, it is identified as being part of the organization, and not as a vendor deliverable.

Crummy information technology only sporadically performs its business function. It constantly forces employees to adjust work habits. It generates a greater volume of data in the form of hate e-mail than revenue transactions, or customer service responses, or suggestion box submissions.

No one ever admits to mastering crummy information technology. Employees brag about the workarounds they've created to cut crummy information technology out of their workday. If the time required to train an employee on a new system is more than the cumulative time they'll use the system over a three-month period, then it's a good bet it's crummy information technology.

Finally, and most obviously, if people use the vendor's brand to refer to an information technology, and not the formal functional name of the system--well, someone's about to get run out of town. And you'd better hope it's the vendor.

Crummy information technology is like pornography: You know it when you see it. In my time in this business, I've seen some great information technology and a whole lot of crummy information technology. In this column, as I discuss the importance of information technology to business, I'll bring my size-12 feet to bear on IT charlatans who preach gadgetry over value, novelty over usability and, critically, things over people.

Ultimately, all information technologies are tools to be used by people. I've never seen a machine innovate. To the best of my knowledge, no piece of software has labored for months on its own time to create something really important to customers. Great information technology is made great by the people who use it.

Is information technology important to business? Yes, because it has become critical to people: employees, peers, customers. And that is something that bears much more discussion.