The Observer: Exposing And Fixing Weaknesses - InformationWeek

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Software // Enterprise Applications
Commentary
3/3/2003
07:35 AM
Lou Bertin
Lou Bertin
Commentary
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The Observer: Exposing And Fixing Weaknesses

Go along to get along? That doesn't have to be the plan any longer with integration, says Lou Bertin.

For all the lifelong beliefs we've learned we can put the lie to over the past year and a half, foremost is the one the bad news travels fast. Sure, bad news still flies with lightning speed over office grapevines and such, or when personal or collective tragedy strikes, but the really bad news that lies outside the realm of the salacious and the personal creeps along of its own pitiably slow pace, often never reaching the person who might effect some remedial action.

A number of events great and small have conspired recently to lead me to my "bad-news-is-slow-news" conclusion. Among them: word that NASA engineers conjured the precise series of circumstances that led to the demise of the space shuttle Columbia and the snuffing of the extraordinary lives within, but those scenarios, and the admittedly long-shot solutions to them, never reached their intended audiences; laying my hands during a rare cleaning of my worldwide headquarters office on Time magazine's "Persons of the Year" issue which pictured among two other women on its cover FBI special agent Colleen Rowley, whose pre-attack memo to supervisors regarding the Sept. 11 murderers never reached its intended audience; and Bob Evans' Feb. 24 editorial on the need for integration integration, A Most-Important Jigsaw Puzzle ," whose message, I hope, does reach its intended audiences.

The last citation may seem out of place, but for the day-to-day purposes of most of us, it's the piece that rings truest and, in the occasionally absurd language of commerce, the most actionable.

Why, oh why, do we need integration integration? The answer is simple and it's the single reason why the goal of enterprise optimization remains so utterly elusive. We're human and we are, to varying extents, loathe to expose vulnerability or, almost equally as often, a willingness to correct same. More on that, especially as it regards government organizations, later in this piece.

Holding aside evolutionary issues that I'm nowhere near smart enough to address, my experience is that rare is the organizational structure that encourages individual managers great or small to be forthright about the weaknesses of their fiefdoms. Such may be the goal and such may be the extraordinary rare reality, but rare is it that such heady, and absolutely productive, goals become reality.

Ergo, we have real-world scenarios where, for example, the customer-relationship people have real reason to obscure their weaknesses to the operational people, who themselves don't want the back-office people to know that the supply-chain people soon will have colossal headaches coming down the track. Why expose weaknesses when finger-pointing will suffice? Why make seamless a process whose inherent seams allow ample room for fudging, massaging, and spinning the facts? Indeed, why encourage systems that would no longer allow for, as one of my trial-lawyer friends puts it, speaking the facts, but not speaking the truth?

Moreover, and this is where our friends in the public sector would do well to pay particular attention, where is the incentive to incite change to comfortable behaviors when the initial reward will be bureaucratic headaches that comfortably fit into one of the seven circles of hell? As a federal agency CIO characterized it to me some months ago, "there are times when people simply put their heads down and won't take on a challenge to do things differently because it is simply too hard to change things. That's my biggest worry, and it scares the hell out of me."

Worse is that the agency CIO I cite above has many, many counterparts within federal government I've spoken with lately who echo his thinking (of course not for attribution, another sign of the frailty, or instinct for organizational self-preservation, that runs through this little piece).

Is there a solution to the millennia-old problems I've been wringing my hands over? For our private-sector readers, there sure is. It's called the marketplace and those organizations that don't, by word and deed from the top-most levels of management, encourage the intramural exposure of organizational weakness before they become the cause for extramurally imposed remedies leave themselves at peril.

For the public sector, the picture is murkier and far more perilous. Apart from a sense of complete dedication on the part of individuals, there are no incentives for inciting inevitably painful change; there are no rewards for the best contribution to the suggestion box; and there are no meaningful (i.e., cashable, until government service ceases) accruals of benefits for ensuring that things simply get done better. Why bother? Yet people within government, at whatever level of government, do bother, and we're extraordinarily in their debt.

Regardless, we've survived, and we'll continue to survive. Thus is the comfort and thus is the curse.


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Lou Bertin's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Lou Bertin, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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