January 2002

Not all change is progress. Not all change is innovation. Not all change is safe.

Common sense, right? Maybe a decade of wanton but unproductive spending on information systems has finally pounded a bit of sense into corporate information systems managers.... But don't count on it. In the computer biz, the people with the most sense are typically forced out; it is the human-resource equivalent of Gresham's Law: "Bad money drives out good." In the computer field, the past two decades have shown that "bad people drive out good" and "bad technology drives out good." What is behind all of that?

It is simply the relentless commoditization of everything. The airlines have chosen commoditized security guards and commoditized maintenance and services personnel. Then we wonder why safety seems so elusive. The fast-food industry has chosen commoditized manufacturing and distribution of foodstuffs, commoditized assembly-line processing of meat, vegetables, and treats. I used to be able to go to Burger King and order a salad, but not any more. I used to get a plate of salad instead of a silly cup of salad at McDonald's, but not any more. I used to see plenty of sit-down, family-owned, diner-style restaurants, but not very often any more.

This is perhaps the final outcome of the mindset that places a few tenths of a cent profit ahead of any notion of product quality and variety. Instead of having mediocrity and boring uniformity imposed by government mandate, we observe a steady trend toward corporate-mandated incompetence in almost every line of products. Once companies achieve a critical mass, they become icebergs in the seas of commerce -- yield the right-of-way or be smashed to bits!

It seems like a great rule of thumb would be to begin questioning the answer as soon as everyone else stops asking the question. If the marketplace settles on Windows, immediately assume that it is the worst solution and move ahead to something better. If the marketplace settles on burgers, look for an authentic ethnic restaurant. Ever try real, "down-home" cuisine from India? It has a huge variety of spices and flavors and colors.... every dish has a unique identity and a distinct taste. Don't be fooled by the artificial excuses that we should all settle for the same mindless gruel, whether it is food or software or education or religion or anything else! Mediocrity is its own punishment.

The most difficult challenge in finding and integrating authentic innovation is the matter of capital leverage. Size matters! The questionable quality of a product from SAP or Baan or Peoplesoft is often ignored because major corporate buyers assume that if a company is big, it must be good. Those who use that kind of reasoning may also conclude that McDonald's must have good quality because otherwise they would not be big. These are the mental midgets who parrot excuses about Microsoft's "success" as a reason to avoid punishing them for their crimes. "They must be good, otherwise they wouldn't be so big." I have decided to adopt the opposite strategy: bigness may not always be a sign of mediocrity, but it is a more accurate forecast than what is offered by the weatherman.

As we move into the year 2002, we must resist the temptation to give up in the search for quality and innovation and just settle for the "conventional wisdom." Just because it is conventional does not mean that it is wisdom. The front page of Network World magazine of December 17, 2001, has an article called "Excel's Dirty Little Secret." According to this article, the password security of Microsoft's "conventional" or "standard" spreadsheet program can be compromised by simply using cut-and-paste from one spreadsheet to another! Imagine the sick, worried feeling of thousands of executives and salespeople now that their "safe" data is wide open, unprotected, and freely available to almost anyone. So much for trusting a big company with their vital, proprietary data. And this is the same Microsoft that wants to hold everyone's credit and financial data??

The wise choice is to recognize the existence of choice. Instead of Peoplesoft or SAP, I would recommend taking a look at Aviar's Oz system for order entry and maintenance management. Instead of Office, I would recommend taking a serious look at Lotus Smartsuite or StarOffice or the Sundial Systems family of products. What, they're not Microsoft?? They're not Windoze-only products??? What, you think it's more important to find a good Indian restaurant than a good software program? Would you spend more time looking at the lunch menu at the local McDonald's than you would in searching for key software applications for your company? It sounds stupid, but.... Yes, there are actually IT managers who spend more time agonizing over the lunch menu than they do searching for an office suite for their companies! (I hope somebody else is choosing a college for this person's teenage son or daughter....) Why are these people even employed, if they make no meaningful decisions about where to spend the company's IT money?

Choosing a non-mainstream product has a nonzero cost. But more and more, the cost of choosing a "mainstream" software product has hidden, long-term costs: shoddy security, goofy bugs, higher license fees, surprise incompatibilities. In this incoming year 2002, are you willing to go out on a limb and choose quality?

Or do you plan to sit there and just eat BURGERS the rest of your life?

Most recent revision: December 28, 2001
Copyright © 2001, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.