Uncertain Leadership in Uncertain Times

Who are we supposed to believe?

Over the last few days, we’ve gotten more mixed signals from the so-called industry leaders that are supposed to give us direction based on their vast expertise. But about the only thing we can conclude is these so called “leaders” of industry and innovation haven’t the foggiest notion when the high-tech recession will end and the recovery will begin. Some are offering a glimpse that the elusive recovery is just around the corner while others are providing us with more evidence of the extent of the damage.

For example, IDC predicts the worst is over and the end of the recession is in sight. IT spending is projected to only grow 3.7 percent this year from 2001 levels but by 2006, growth rates will climb back to double-digit levels.

On Wednesday, IBM CFO John Joyce told analysts at Big Blue’s seasonal shindig that IBM still expects growth in the IT industry to outpace worldwide GDP growth in the future. And on Thursday, Dell reported a strong 28-percent jump in overall product shipments, compared with just 2 percent for the rest of the industry, and projected sales gains of 20 percent in the fourth quarter.

But Gartner Dataquest still see no end to the pain for the PC segment with single-digit growth rates projected this year and in 2003. The host of next week’s annual Comdex confab is near bankruptcy. And, more layoffs are coming from AMD, Sprint and Sun Microsystems.

Why all of the mixed signals? The answer is actually very simple: security.

I’m not referring to the issue of Homeland Security that President Bush keeps talking about. The current war effort in Iraq and the U.S. campaign on terrorism have little impact on the IT spending of corporations and non-profit organizations, small- to medium-sized enterprises, family businesses and consumers.

No, what I’m talking about is sense of security that we feel while we’re on the job or trying to make sound business decisions. No anti-terrorism measure will allay your fear of being laid off. The need for economic security dwarfs the need for Homeland Security. Yet, IT professionals have never felt more vulnerable in the job than in today’s environment. And those concerns that start in the workplace trickle back to the home and eventually out to the overall economy because (as any economist will tell you) consumers drive economic activity.

Given that situation, it’s no wonder that Jupitermedia (the parent of this Web site) found in its latest IT/IS research report, titled “2003 IT/IS Budget Outlook: Near-Term Trends in Priorities,” that more and more small- to medium-sized businesses plan to trim their IT/IS budgets this year and in 2003.

But surely I’m not expecting our corporate leaders to guarantee our jobs? No, a manuever like that, in fact, wouldn’t be smart business. But in the area of feeling secure about key business decisions, we can certainly expect and should expect our so-called “leaders” to make a significant contribution. And that can and does affect our job security.

Perhaps there is no consensus about when the recession will end because no one is willing to stick their necks out to test the waters. I’ve often heard there is nothing that will drive businesses or consumers to spend because no one is sure what ‘killer app’ will spark the next revolution. What they currently have works just fine and there is nothing else that they need to have. In the current environment, IT spending instead becomes a math problem — anything without a measureable ROI is excess and waste.

If that were the case, corporate execs would become bureaucratic especially if they too are afraid to rock the boat within their companies’ cushy confines. It’s certainly safer to sit around and wait rather than place bets on which technologies will emerge as the next must-have killer app. But what if there is no single one technology which emerges as the next killer app? Does that mean technology has evolved as far as it can go?

We spend on IT to enrich our lives. Consumers and organizations of all sizes will continue to look for different ways to use technology to improve their lives at work and at home. Perhaps that means utilizing XML-tagged data to do everything from mobilizing a fleet of beverage distributors to refinancing your home. Or perhaps it means plugging into a North American computing grid to start the oven and check on dinner.

Those leaders that are satisfied with the status quo, please step aside. That’s not leadership.

Bob Liu is executive editor of internet.com’s News channel

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