Ask the editorial director: Where are the tell-all stories?

Recently, I received a letter from a reader taking exception to a Special Report we had run on the topic of Voice-Over-IP. He was asking why the end-users we profiled had only good things to say about this emerging technology.

His experience was quite the opposite.  Voice-Over-IP,

he insisted, is expensive, difficult to implement and seldom works well.

No doubt, the reader raises some valid concerns. And although nobody disputes the value of the case study, you sometimes are left wondering if you indeed tell the full story.

Are the stories we do like what you see on TV, where everything gets neatly wrapped up within one hour or so, except we do it in three pages or less?

There certainly are obstacles to overcome. First and foremost and for all the obvious reasons, it is difficult to get people (end-users) to talk candidly.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been approached at a trade show or conference, or received a phone tip of some IT project gone horribly wrong, except very few people will agree to go on the record.

Secondly, we are constrained continually by a lack of resources. We would like nothing better than to be able to assign a writer to do a single story for a week or more, which would be necessary to produce the type of story that this reader is looking for. We simply do not have the luxury.

Thirdly, we do in fact cover a lot of stories where things go wrong. If you have time, go to our Web site, ITBusiness.ca, and do a search on downtime, glitches, failures or crashes, and you’ll find plenty of examples. When we do these stories, it is in the form of a “news story” which follows a very different formula from the basic “case study,” which has another role.

At EDGE magazine, case studies have a specific purpose. Some years ago, I had a conversation with an editor who believed the function of the industry trade press was to not just report on what goes wrong, but also, to go a step further and offer solutions as well. We should not only be “investigative” but “instructive,” and it’s something I’ve always taken to heart.

Throughout the ’90s, for example, we regularly ran stories about apparent failures of ERP systems at various companies in Canada. (Sobeys and Bell Canada both spring to mind.) And it was the same pattern each time. The initial feeling was that it was always the technology and the vendors who were to blame.

Upon further investigation, system failure is due to a variety of reasons, and as any CIO will tell you, things seldom break down only because of the technology. It usually has as much, or more to do, with human error, improper business planning, poor execution or lack of end-user training.

These days, we seldom do stories about ERP systems that fail anymore. It makes me think the same thing will happen as a newer technology like voice-over-IP as it matures and finds market acceptance.

Many more readers over the years have commented to us that they really like our case study approach. They appreciate that we talk to CIOs, to end-users, to senior business executive and to IT departments. They have enough day-to-day pressures, they say, and actually prefer to read stories about technology that works.

But to the reader who took the time to comment, maybe we can offer more tell-all stories, the ones that the more hard-nosed journalists amongst us would love to tell.

mslofstra@itbusiness.ca

Martin Slofstra is the editorial director of the IT Business Group and the editor of EDGE.

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