National Harbor, MD- At just about every BI conference I attend, two things are almost certain. The first is that at least one lunch will feature a chicken breast in some kind of sauce. The second is that one or more keynote addresses will talk about:

-         - Poor alignment of business and IT objectives and resources

-         - Too many silos of data

-         - A lack of quality, timely data for decision-making

This was again the case at this week’s Gartner BI Summit, where, notwithstanding, the chicken was tasty and the presentations as a whole were useful and on the mark.

The very theme of the conference was to address the discrepancy between BI perception and reality and finally execute on those bullets above. Gartner analysts were right there to point out that CIOs and executives have been burned by expensive data investments that didn't deliver. It was a call to action.

Yet there I was, feeling a little depressed to think, ‘Here we are, going over the same ground we trod five or eight years ago.’ To confirm my dread, hundreds of people around me were nodding and smiling at wry anecdotes from the usual points of view. “Anything I want from IT seems to be a 12-month project,” says the business guy, and from the IT point of view, “The business doesn’t really know what it wants.”

There is a huge continuum of experience and success in information management and, wherever they sit, I firmly believe the people who visit conferences are earnestly in pursuit of the best outcomes for their organizations. We're also in a difficult economic time that finds most of us working faster than we'd like.

But it does get to sounding like a broken record of bad communication. We have flattened the organization and distributed decision-making. We have accelerated our consumption of information to a blurry pace and lost track of what’s going on in the next cubicle. Our new goal is to empower more and more people with information with little attention paid to their working isolation.

From Eli Whitney to Peter Drucker to Howard Porter, business theorists have dealt mostly with constraints to scale, and in the variables that infect the Information Age we’ve reached another roadblock.

What I notice more at conferences these days is that outside-the-enterprise innovation (from competitors, workers experimenting on the Web or new vendors disrupting old boundaries of work) is stressing the organization more than ever. We talk a lot about cultures and politics and say that technology shouldn't be seen as a panacea. 

In fact, technology works closer to its promise than ever before. At conferences and in talks with IT and business managers, I am seeing more organizations sing the praises of a product or service that helped get them through a business problem that was previously unsolvable. Like they always had, the vendors had turned early customer input and experience into solutions that made it possible. And there they are, waving flags that seem to say, “We did this and you can too.”

So yes, there is a lot of progress but it remains very hard for leadership to bring coordinated change to a distributed organization. Many executives are too harried to see the ground moving under them and the need to lead the workplace as markets shift. I was a bit disappointed to see Robert Kaplan’s keynote at the Gartner conference recount almost entirely his early groundbreaking work with David Norton on the balanced scorecard, and that he acknowledged only in a passing joke that his methodology had failed to account for risk factors that put us into the mess we are in. It wasn't the performance management message you'd want to take back to your boss.

In fairness, the reorganizations many people have gone through in the last year have come from executives who have necessarily become more reflexive than innovative. And, as a mature enterprise ages, it becomes harder to respond to the market other than to use its cash balance to acquire new ideas to replace the old, ideas that are ever harder to assimilate to old structures.

From Packard Motors to Circuit City, corporations have been undone over time by models that assumed what the market would demand, versus what had changed. Who wouldn’t prefer a role at a nimble startup that is short on rules and bureaucracy and quick in its ability to change course? Startups are all about possibilities and options rather than constraints.

New information consumption trends are increasingly disrupting old business models, yet we have also seen huge companies like Cisco and Pfizer predict and respond to change, and those folks are impressively, even improbably, moving armies of people toward common goals. It all depends on where you work and where you sit.

So look around and ask yourself if you actually know what’s going on across the cubicle wall, the floor, the building or the enterprise. Ask yourself if you are an insurgent or a victim of the status quo. Ask where either answer is likely to lead you eventually and if challenging either is worthy. Get to a conference if your budget allows, talk to your peers and see what they are doing.

Enjoy the chicken, and then get back to work. 

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