Would you like the good IT news or the bad IT news?

“In this environment bad news can actually be good news, if it’s not disastrously bad news.”
-Andrew Bartels, Forrester Research

The above quote was passed on to me by my colleague Howard, and I assume it was in relation to Forrester’s gloomy report on IT spending declines that was announced Tuesday. But it occurred to me that the same kind of logic might be applied to what comes out of a lot of IT managers’ mouths. As far as users are concerned, IT departments seldom come out with good news. When they do – a new application to increase productivity, for example – it’s treated as bad news because users either don’t think it will work or are threatened by its ability to expose their innate laziness.

I’ve sat in a lot of meetings about business projects that depend on technology, and in many cases I or people I have worked with in the past have had to choose between the lesser or two or three evils. In other words, we accept the best of the bad news.

Even if they aren’t directly delivering bad news, IT people are seen as messengers of negativity because they are the network gatekeepers. They are the ones to tell users, in other words, that they can’t surf that Web site, or access that device, or change the entire company Web site to further their less-than-mission-critical project. The ultimate bad news, for these people is that they can’t get rid of the IT people and replace them.

I haven’t yet seen Jim Carrey’s recent film, Yes Man, but its premise ties into this theme. A man who perennially avoids opportunities or shuts out those around him decides to turn over a new leaf, and responds “yes” to everything asked of him or offered his way. His life is comically transformed with good fortune. IT professionals can’t really do that. They know if they start with a few yeses – a bit of good news to some users – more of the same will be expected. Their “yes” is often treated as some sort of case history or legal precedent among coworkers, so they provide certain good news sparingly.

No doubt some IT managers are better than others at delivering the bad news, such as how much it will cost to make their systems work better, increase their Web site traffic, block viruses from entering the network or whether some projects can proceed at all. Some would probably argue their good news, when it does come out, goes ignored or is taken for granted.

People in other pursuits face the same challenge. I think of David Suzuki, who titled one of the more recent books he co-authored “Good News For A Change.” The double-entendre is obvious but inspiring. It’s not easy to get people to take better care of the environment, any more than it is to get them to back up their work regularly and not treat their e-mail trash bin as a storage repository. But small, incremental progress can be made.

When businesses are booming and economies are exploring with opportunity, the bad news from IT departments may be a necessary reality check, even if it irritates those in other departments. In times like these senior management may demand more flexibility, ingenuity and success stories. It’s going to have to get pretty bad before their bad news starts to look any good.

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