Opinion by Steve Duplessie

Opinion: You can't fix stupid

When Web 2.0 developers apply their models to enterprise-class apps, that's when all hell is going to break loose. I can't wait.

Opinion by Steve Duplessie

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Q: Steve, how can an IT executive expect to bring "strategic value" to the business if the business itself does not value IT, and also shows no real business acumen? -- P.B., Redondo Beach, Calif.

A: You can't.

"Stupid is as stupid does" is about the most accurate statement you'll ever hear. You can fix most any problem, except stupid.

The bottom line is we are in a vicious circle. Historically, IT hasn't been able to prove its true value to the business, and as such it is treated as a cost center, which are the first things to lose funding when a business downturn or hiccup happens -- which always happen in poorly run companies. There isn't much you can do about that, except to find a better company that values the strategic possibilities of IT and does so while actually running the business better than a six monkeys driving a mini-van juiced up on tequila and Jolt. Easier said than done, unfortunately.

The good news is that for every well run business, there appear to be 100 more that are either about to succumb to Darwinism or have somehow bypassed the evolutionary process temporarily. Eventually, the dodo became extinct. The better news is that as the natural laws of business are slowly doing their thing: The businesses that withstand the test of time tend to be the ones that have the brains and adaptability to move on to the next plane.

The really good news is that the next plane will be dominated by data. "Gut" instinct will be valued, creativity will be sought, but data will drive decisions. When that happens, IT becomes what it always should have been -- the keeper of the crown jewels. I just hope we're all around when it finally happens.

I'm seeing signs of intelligent life. If you are not up to speed on what the Web 2.0 phenomenon really means for you, IT, and business in general, you should start paying attention. I think I'm even going to write a book on it (I've threatened that many times before, so don't hold your breath). Web 2.0 is all about pushing new business agendas while completely dismantling traditional methodologies for performing corporate functions and turning the economic models of all that we know about technology and infrastructure on its head. There is too much to cover on this topic, but suffice it to say that when the dust settled on Web 1.0, the guys left standing had turned the world of IT infrastructure as we had known it into a shambles. What was never possible before was suddenly possible -- and what cost a million bucks a year ago might cost less than a tuna fish sandwich next year. All the assumptions that you hold about IT and the business of IT should be put on notice: Change is in the air.

Amazon didn't start by wanting to be in the IT infrastructure business -- it had a different idea. YouTube and MySpace sure didn't desire to be in the infrastructure space either, and nor did Yahoo or even Google -- but they all are. The only reason to build your own stuff, if it isn't the business you are in, is that you can't buy the stuff you need or you can't get the functionality you want at the price you are willing to pay. There is value to the video of my kid shoving the cat into the toilet, but how much? Not enough for me to pay YouTube to keep it. Yahoo and Google will give you unlimited space now -- gratis. Those models are simple to understand from an IT perspective; they want infinitely dynamically scalable infrastructure with an absurdly low (or no) real cost to acquire or manage. Otherwise, their models fail, and none of those models seem to be failing just yet.

Since the entire IT industry is predicated upon the very opposite of this model, it is no wonder that Web 2.0 companies had to grow their own ways to provide that functionality at the required economic level. Free means crap, right? Wrong. How many of you keep Yahoo mail running on your BlackBerries along with Exchange because you know Exchange will be down sooner or later? When is the last time Google Mail was down? So my enterprise-caliber application running on an enterprise-caliber infrastructure with enterprise-caliber IT talent is less reliable than my free e-mail? Yep.

What's most interesting is that the model has been proved internally to these organizations and only now is teaching the rest of us what that means. The e-mail example is perfect; Google or Yahoo are not providing us these tremendous services for zero dollars by simply running enterprise applications on enterprise infrastructure more effectively than we do. They are doing it 100% differently. The question is: What will be the next wave of vendors to take that movement and apply external commercial viability to it? That's when all hell is going to break loose. I can't wait.

Now, not to get you all bummed out, but as cool as all this is, there is still way more dumb than smart out there. For example, I have a neighbor who for years has been the CIO of a "direct marketing" company -- a glorified pyramid scheme, really. This company has been as big as $650 million to $700 million, but is currently plummeting down to the sub-$400 million in revenue on its way to oblivion. It is one of those "party in the house" marketing organizations -- the kind we all hate but feel compelled to attend from time to time in order to maintain civility in the neighborhood.

Anyhow, these guys sell candles. They have made a ton of dough selling candles over the years by having Marge host a little candle party and getting my wife to stop in and place an order for $37 worth of the smooth-smelling wax jars. The issue is that once my wife gets the candles, she likes them. She wants to buy more candles, but she has absolutely no desire to attend another candle party with Marge. She'd like to simply log onto the company's Web site and order some more. The company, being stupid, has decided that would be bad for them. They fear that somehow that would break their allure with Marge, or somehow hurt the mystique of the home party. So instead of assigning my wife a customer ID that automatically pays Marge every time my wife orders something (which tends to be a lot), they decide to not allow my wife to order anything online.

Remember Julia Roberts in the Beverly Hills boutique that looked down on her and lost a fortune in sales in Pretty Woman? Big mistake.

My wife doesn't care. She goes to the mall, CVS or any other online store and buys candles. Marge is out a commission, and the company is out a customer. By not only is that company ignoring the evolution of their own market dynamics, but they are flagrantly disregarding basic customer service, and because of that, they are destined for the scrap heap.

What did they do when they started to lose customers and piles of money? Did they mine their data to find the root of the problem? Nope; they slashed costs, killed every IT project, fired developers, and made sure the only folks left were political allies without a clue.

I love Darwinism.

Send me your questions -- about anything, really, to sinceuasked@computerworld.com.

Steve Duplessie founded Enterprise Strategy Group Inc. in 1999 and has become one of the most recognized voices in the IT world. He is a regularly featured speaker at shows such as Storage Networking World, where he takes on what's good, bad -- and more importantly -- what's next. For more of Steve's insights, read his blogs.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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