by Megan Santosus

Still Waiting for the IT Miracle

Oct 01, 2000 6 mins
IT Leadership

CIO has existed for more than a decade, beating the drum aboutthe benefits of IT. In my optimism (a.k.a., naivet) about theultimate wisdom of humanity, I find it astonishing that in thisday and age certain pockets of our society remain stubbornlyimpervious to that message. I recently experienced two glaringexamples of IT retrogrades when I moved into a brand-new house.As an equal-opportunity complainer, I’m happy to report that theoffenders represented both the public and private sector.

Before the phony brick stamping was dry on my new front walk, Ireceived a visit from a harried employee of the U.S. CensusDepartment. Apparently flummoxed by the prospect of using astreet map, the census taker breathlessly informed me howdifficult it was to find my address. She then produced afrightening, multipage form reminiscent of a novella. It wasalso reminiscent of the form I had completed and returnedseveral months ago while living at my previous address. Before Icould say, “I gave at the office,” she asked me if I had beenliving at the house prior to April 1. Since I had moved in onlya few days before, I was relieved to find out that all I had todo was sign the form in a few places attesting to that fact. Igave her directions to her next destination, and thankfully I’venot heard from the Census Department since.

I say thankfully because earlier this year I was drowning inCensus Department notices. If I wasn’t getting daily flyers onmy car proffering temporary employment, I was receiving dailypostcards ominously warning me to fill out and promptly returnthe census form that was mailed to me three times. Being thelaw-abiding citizen that I am, I completed and returned the formrequesting all manner of demographic and personal informationsuch as work history, family situation, ethnic background,household size and the like. Nevertheless, the vaguelythreatening postcards continued.

The U.S. Postal Service knew where and when I was moving. Howdifficult would it have been to pass that information along toanother branch of the government? Funny, but the IRS never has aproblem getting most of us to submit accurate information aboutourselves in a timely manner. Why can’t the Census Departmentget its hands on some of the information that the IRS collectsabout us annually? The IRS already knows my Social Securitynumber, where I live, where I work, how much money I make, howmany dependents I have, how old I am, and whether I’m married,single, blind or some combination. Surely passing along thisdata to Census isn’t that complicated. Heck, it can be done viae-mail.

It would be progressive if the various government agencies thattouch every aspect of our lives actually shared information witheach other. Think of how streamlined things would be if thefolks at Census found a way to strike a data integration dealwith their friends at the Treasury. After all, a lot of theinformation Census wants to get its hands on is already on fileat the Treasury Department. Additional questions easily could beincorporated into the 1040 form. And by associating itself evenloosely with the IRS, I’d be willing to bet Census wouldn’t haveto resort to direct mail to extort compliance.

Of course, there are those who balk at the notion of arminggovernment bureaucrats with a humongous database that keeps tabson our finances, marital status, whereabouts and ethnicheritage. But with more silos than the grain belt, thegovernment already maintains this personal data, albeit inisolated pools. Isn’t it better to have it all kept in one placewith uniform standards of security? Besides, think how much moreefficient (and cost-effective) the Census Department would be ifit didn’t have to hire and train a slew of temporary workersevery time it had to fulfill its constitutionally mandatedhead-counting duties. If integrating it meant no more in-personvisits from frenzied federal workers, reams of junk mail orflyers littering my windshield, I’m all for it.

Seating For Zero

Later that same week, I experienced an even more egregiousexample of techno-backwardness. It was in the residentialfurniture industry, an industry which, unlike the government, iswithout any redeeming IT qualities as far as I can tell. Castingoff a decade’s worth of cheap furniture (a style I like to callEarly Collegiate), I was eager to start a new household withfurnishings that were both comfortable and coordinated. Ivisited a few showrooms (I wasn’t about to try my luck withonline furniture stores), where I seemed to have an uncannyknack for gravitating toward the most expensive stuff. I wastorn between two sets of dining room chairs until the perkysalesclerk assured me one would take a mere three weeks fordelivery. I ordered that set, only to discover the hard way thatin the furniture biz three weeks simply means sometime withinthis current millennium. The chairs were missing in action atsix weeks, 10 weeks and now, as I write this, 13 weeks. As forthe dining table I ordered, which the same perky salesclerk saidwould take eight weeks, the latest projections have it arrivingin some temporal dimension preceding the chairs. If I had anyidea that I’d have a nice table with no seats, I would havenever gotten rid of all those milk crates.

When I complained to the perky salesclerk (who turned apologeticas if on a dime), she assured me that the delay was not herfault but was because of a backlog at the manufacturer, acompany that, while upholding the vaunted furniture-industrytradition of closing down production every July, must’ve beencaught off guard by my order.

Let’s see, I ordered the stuff in June. Couldn’t themanufacturer anticipate a backlog at that time? All that’sneeded to make the kind of stuff I ordered is some wood, a fewnails and a little glue. It’s not like the manufacturer had towait for the trees to grow, and it turned out to be a badharvest.

The only time backlogs materialize out of thin air is when thereis no order entry, demand forecasting or project managementsystems in place. In other words, when there’s a lack of eventhe most basic computer automation. Add to that dearth theabsence of a simple customer resource management system (adatabase and a phone would suffice), and you have the makings ofan industry that would be considered behind the times in theformer Soviet Union. It takes the auto industry less time tomanufacture a car than it takes a furniture manufacturer tobuild a standard maple table, even though cars are composed ofthousands of parts from thousands of suppliers.

Most of us have encountered similar situations. But while it’scathartic to blame techno-backwardness on the perpetrators, theultimate buck stops with us, the citizens and consumers. Afterall, I’ve never written to my congressman railing about dataintegration, nor did I cancel my furniture order. Theastonishing thing about techno-backwardness is that we acceptit. Ultimately, we have only ourselves to blame.