There's a backlash coming

For most of this decade, information technology has been a Very Good Thing. Soon, it's going to be as popular as air pollution.

IT has been a VGT for investors who got in early on tech stocks; kids who love games, surfing and chat rooms; and journalists, who have something exciting to write about. For businesses, it's been the enabler of innovation everywhere.

What goes up must come down. The pendulum swings. There's a very big backlash coming against IT in general. As the visible representative of technology as a Very Good Thing, IS will be caught in the headlights of the oncoming shame-and-blame train, even though most of the backlash will reflect vendors' actions and inactions.

Here are just some of the backlash generators:

1. The ever-increasing complexity of what are advertised as ever-more-simple tools. Every promise of plug and play, user-friendly, better, faster, kinder and gentler in the world of Windows and Intel has been a con. Installing a printer, CD-ROM or LAN has, on average, an 80 per cent chance of success. When simple e-mail attachments confuse and confound, networks and PCs become a source of frustration, not communication. When PowerPoint files can't be transferred from a PC that uses one version to a PC that uses another, and when the two leading browsers can't handle frames and multimedia developed with standard software tools, it's easier to go back to faxing.

2. The indifference of many IT vendors, online services and software providers to their customers once the product is sold. IT goods and services are inherently complex and require top-rate support and service as part of the promise, not a reluctant add-on. As anyone who has to wait on a vendor's phone line for hours knows, more and more "help" lines are the opposite. Warranties are too often paper equivocations and fine print. The industry as a whole seems to have no sense of its obligation to its customers.

3. The widespread sense of danger in venturing into the online world. Security risks, threats from viruses, privacy invasion, lack of consumer protection laws and the many problems associated with chat rooms and pornography may be far less real than many Internet users believe. That isn't the point. It's what they believe that matters.

4. Breakdowns in service: The more we all depend on IT, the more consequential any breakdown will be - and is. Within the past few weeks, a satellite swinging out of orbit silenced pagers and cellular phones. Even if 99 per cent of all companies solve their year 2000 problems (year 2000 is a giant backlash generator in itself) there'll be a lot more impact than just that. And it's more likely that 69 per cent, rather than 99 percent, will solve the problem.

5. Rapacity: Telcos, PC makers, Internet service providers, cable companies and electronic-commerce providers are in search of the pot of IPO and mergers and acquisitions gold at the end of the IT rainbow. This is a greedy industry that boasts of its greed.

The coming IT backlash will be very similar to the environmentalist attack on business that emerged in the 1980s. Then, economic growth and modernisation, which had been Very Good Things, became Big Bad Business Destroying Planet Earth. Smart companies quickly accepted their responsibility to balance business and environment. IS will have to do the same. I doubt if the vendors will. They have too much invested in their strategy of "Innovate or die". IS already has a shaky reputation - bureaucracy, cost overruns, lack of communication and all the other long-standing concerns. Year 2000 is hardly helping improve matters.

It isn't enough to say that year 2000 and vendor irresponsibility aren't the fault of IS. That's like the US Wal-Mart retail chain saying poor-quality suppliers aren't its fault. Wal-Mart manages its suppliers on behalf of its customers. IS must do the same.

I've heard several jokes recently about how "Microsoft really runs our firm". IS must take real charge. It must guarantee simplicity instead of complexity, first-rate support and after-sales service, customer safety and impeccable operations.

It must anticipate the IT backlash and show that it stands for more than just the morass of technology complexity at the end of the Silicon Valley innovation chain. The IS "brand" has to be service and guarantees, not technology and best efforts. Alas, most IS shops aren't Wal-Mart. Why don't they try to be?

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Peter G.W. Keen

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