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Cut to the chase

Cut to the chase

Gone are the days when straight-talking CIOs could give you “the skinny” on their latest project. Where once they’d tell you in no uncertain terms why they’ve dumped Vendor X’s software in favour of Vendor Y’s, these days the CIO will invariably need to “run it by markomms” first.

It’s an expression first found in JP McEvoy’s 1929 novel Hollywood Girl but it didn’t enter general coinage until the early 1980s. To “cut to the chase” is a film script direction: to “cut” (as in to edit a strip of celluloid) straight to the action — a French Connection-style car chase, perhaps — thus omit any boring back-story. I’ve often found myself talking to IT people, wishing they’d cut to the chase. And I’m sure there are many people working in IT who wish they were able to cut to the chase when talking to journalists and editors. Gone are the days when straight-talking CIOs could give you “the skinny” (another phrase familiar to moviegoers, meaning “the inside story”, or “the real truth”) on their latest project. Where once they’d tell you in no uncertain terms why they’ve dumped Vendor X’s software in favour of Vendor Y’s, these days the CIO will invariably need to “run it by markomms” first. By then, it’ll have become so sanitised that it’s one of those anaemic works of fiction in which every project comes in ahead of time, below budget and everybody lives happily ever after.

While the fictionalising of business has undoubtedly had many benefits at the corporate level (internal PRs must have ground their teeth and torn their hair out while reading the popular IT press in the early 1990s), it’s mortally wounded investigative reporting in information technology. Only the hardest of the hard, the Mickey Spillanes (may he rest in peace) of IT journalism, can today still prise the facts from hardboiled, Clint Eastwood-like CIOs to produce “no frills” stories that don’t claim technology has saved the world, yet again. The rest of us are left waiting for weeks while our stories are “run past” a team of PR flaks who launder them within an inch of their lives in an effort to make them “on message”, with no concept of a deadline, no notion of what CIOs want to read and why. Senior IT executives don’t come to the business media for fairy tales and yet that, I’m afraid, is often what they’ll find in certain parts of the media.

On all sides of the IT divide, the telling of a straight story is a lost art form. But there is a treatment. In the movie industry they call it the “elevator pitch” and there are different flavours, from the “three-floor” to the “10-floor”. Because if you can’t pitch your product’s premise to a potential customer in the time it takes you to get into an elevator and ascend a few floors, you might as well forget it. Yet, increasingly, what’s being talked about in IT is arcane, abstract and has no foundation in enterprise reality. Your customer gets out of the elevator like someone with a bad smell under their nose, wishing they’d stayed in the lobby.

As Catherin Bennett’s analysis of the IDC Forecast for Management on page 26 of this issue succinctly illustrates, the challenges facing CIOs don’t change drastically with the passing of time. While the weighting of priorities may from year to year differ, “aligning IT with business direction” is as constant as the need to “recruit and retain skilled staff”; and yet, of all those ubiquitous challenges, this is the one CIOs and suppliers find the most difficult to define, let alone address. Instead of IT becoming more accessible as it matures, the opposite appears to happen. Does it suit the IT ‘priesthood’ for it to remain esoteric? It’s as though they’re afraid that if they talk straight we’ll see through the hype and discover yet more vapourware; as if businesses believe that if their CIOs are allowed to speak plainly about project failures as well successes, all the productivity gains and cost benefits for which IT was once deployed will evaporate.

Vapourware is so 20th Century. We’ve had enough of the back-story. It’s time to cut to the chase, before our credibility is shot for good.

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