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Everything you know is wrong

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Everyone knows the rampaging cost of lawsuits is killing American commerce.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in a recent television ad, points out that lawsuit abuse costs your family $3,500 per year. It’s a pretty shocking statistic.

It also happens to be entirely untrue.

FactCheck.org — which I consider to be the single most reliable journalistic source on the planet — took a closer look and found that the Towers-Perrin Tillinghast study cited by the Chamber reached a very different conclusion. What it said was that the sum of all torts in 2005 totaled $235 billion, or $880 per person.

That’s all torts, both legitimate and abusive. The study didn’t separate the two. It did find, by the way, that tort filings actually shrank in 2005 as a percentage of GDP.

What everyone knows about the rampaging cost of lawsuits is, it appears, wrong. One reason everyone knows it is that groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce tell them so. But the Chamber apparently considers every single tort filed in 2005 to be an example of lawsuit abuse, and considers shrinkage to be growth.

Or else it’s just lying.

A lot of what everyone knows is wrong. Why is that?

One reason is sympathetic vibration (“The mathematics of organizational dysfunction,KJR, 2/22/2007). It happens when a superficially attractive idea creates good vibes. Someone picks up on it and repeats it, making it louder — and therefore better-able to induce sympathetic vibrations in yet more people who pick up on it and repeat it. With enough repetition it sounds just like an informed consensus.

But really, it’s just something that’s been repeated a lot.

Another example, closer to home: IT’s central role in life is to manage the company’s information assets (you wondered when I’d get to the point, didn’t you?).

Everyone knows this — not just Chief Information Officers, but just about everyone who knows anything about computers.

Not to burst anyone’s bubble or nuthin’ but while not exactly wrong (defined as completely lacking in validity), it’s nowhere close to right.

That our job is to manage the company’s information assets is one of the four faulty assumptions of the information technology trade (the other three: that we’re supposed to satisfy our internal customers; that the goal of our IT projects is to deliver software that meets requirements; and that we measure success through achievement of service levels.)

What’s wrong with this assumption? Among its difficulties are these two small challenges:

  • Everyone also knows that projects should deliver a positive ROI.
  • Your business continuity plan.

Start with the ROI (return on investment for the acronym-challenged). The most popular R in the ROI is increased productivity. That means business decision-makers expect our projects to help them streamline their processes. Very few projects promise financial return from “managing information assets better.”

Then there’s the IT chapter of the business continuity plan. It starts with a list, in order of descending priority, of which systems are most important to bring back online. Here’s a bet: The systems that support core business processes come first. Business Intelligence comes dead last.

Information is, of course, central to what IT does. It is, in fact, the heart of the architecture. Platforms come and go, applications change or are replaced altogether. The data might be massaged, restructured, cleansed and transformed, but it doesn’t go away.

The information layer is even more important than this might seem to imply: Companies with a clean data architecture can accomplish through modest enhancements what other companies with an ugly data architecture need large projects to achieve.

So yes, information is central to what we do. It isn’t, however, the point. Centrality and purpose are separate and independent concepts. The point of what we do hasn’t changed since the first EDP department wrote its first accounting program.

We help streamline business processes through automation.

Here’s the strange part:

One of my standard stump speeches is titled Everything You Know is Wrong (also available as a white paper. Click here to download it). It makes this point quite forcefully. I’ve delivered it at least a dozen times. It’s rare than anyone disagrees, and it’s rare anyone considers the point to be a blinding insight.

And yet, official industry thinking is that our job is to manage the company’s information assets.

So it really isn’t true that everything everyone knows is wrong.

What they say is a different matter.