Mark Gibbs: The tactics of dirty pool games

After the dot-com bubble burst there was what seemed like endless chanting of, “See, we told you!” and “Business without a profit goal isn’t business.” The former was merely irritating, while the latter highlighted something that has been going wrong with business for years.

That something is a lack of strategic thinking. Had the majority of the now defunct dot-coms and their venture capitalists looked at the long-term picture, they would have realized that smoke and mirrors don’t equal real, sustainable business. But, of course, you, gentle reader, know all about this…

The reason I bring up strategic thinking is that there is precious little of it going on in the classic business sense of strategy. Before we discuss the consequences of this, let us draw a distinction between strategy and tactics. According to Cambridge Dictionaries Online:

Tactic, noun: a planned way of doing something.

Strategy, noun: a detailed plan for achieving success in situations such as war, politics, business, industry or sport, or the skill of planning for such situations.

The difference between the two lies in doing one thing to attain a specific goal (such as, “green ball in the corner pocket”) or doing many things to achieve an overall goal (for instance, “beat Bob at pool”).

Now way back when business ran slower than it does today, strategic planning concerned a timeline that extended three to five years out. But over the past decade we have seen the velocity of business increase fantastically, and the time for decisions has shrunk to the extent where what you’re going to have for lunch is a major strategy decision.

No longer are there weeks or days to evaluate a need and plan for integration with existing systems – it is a case of do it now, no excuses. This fosters a way of thinking focused on tactical opportunity gain in place of strategic benefit and consequences.

Which leads many IT groups into an interesting problem when it comes to acquiring new technologies: There’s no time to really learn about and understand a new product, yet there’s often an incredible push to get the product in.

The result is that the IT group’s product acquisition process gets front-ended by fact-finding under the guise of issuing a request for proposal. In reality, the IT guys aren’t asking for proposals at all, they’re asking for a request for information.

This tactic can keep the strategy stalled for months while more and more information is collected through repeatedly refining RFPs. It’s dirty pool whichever way you look at it.

For a vendor, this ruse is an incredible waste of time, while for the actual internal customer it stalls getting a solution in place. But for IT, it works great! IT can say they are just doing their job thoroughly, while in fact they are covering their behinds and getting some breathing space.

But even when such ploys aren’t used, the tactical nature and unseemly speed of many corporate technology acquisitions leads to serious problems. A common consequence of short-term, tactical opportunity gains is long-term snafus.

Take a couple of minor decisions forced onto IT by pressure from other groups, run those decisions out over a few months, throw in some required system reconfiguration and voila…! Things stop working, or worse, don’t work consistently.

And now it’s IT’s fault!

It’s no good crying “They made us do it!” – that didn’t work when you were in grade school and it sure isn’t going to work now.

It’s time for IT groups to start pushing their organizations back into strategic thinking about how IT should be done and its relationship with business processes. It’s also time to stop playing dirty pool.

Gibbs is a contributing editor at Network World (U.S.). He is at