I once read that the average American is subjected to the Coca-Cola brand image over 900 times per day. Thankfully, IT images aren’t as ubiquitous, but we do have our own equally annoying propaganda—industry initiatives.

Industry initiatives like ERP, data warehousing, and knowledge management are those blanket concepts that technology companies embrace to demonstrate the value of their products and services. Once they’re established, you can’t talk to anyone about anything related to technology without getting into the geeky technobabble that surrounds these mercurial concepts. These initiatives are based on sound business ideas, but like the Coca-Cola brand and advertising, they’re also part of slick marketing campaigns that share a common goal—to get CIOs to part with their money.

Based on numerous conversations with CIO and IT management-types, I’ve identified a few telling examples of the overhyped industry initiatives in today’s IT lexicon.

Customer relationship management
It doesn’t take a business guru to understand that companies live or die by their ability to serve their customers. Customer relationship management  (CRM) builds on this logic by promising to aggregate all customer data and automate customer relation processes.

So what’s the problem? CRM projects often take a big-bang approach. Vendors profess that CRM solutions will require enterprise software, data center equipment, and million-dollar budgets. Companies willingly put down their money and go through massive implementation projects, only to find out that their customer relation problem was related to business processes, not software automation. As a result, projects fail, CIOs lose their jobs, and IT and business workers grow further apart. Both Gartner and Meta estimate that 50 percent to 80 percent of CRM projects result in failure.

A far better (and more cost-effective) approach to customer management is to study all customer touch points to identify process problems. Are there any obvious issues? Are there ways to measure customer satisfaction at each phase? Are there separate data sources that can be integrated and queried? IT and business managers should go through this process, identify things that need fixing, and implement tactical and measurable solutions.

Corporate portals
Corporate portals have a noble objective—consolidating disparate information into one common, easily accessible place for all employees to use. In spite of this benevolent goal, however, these projects are often plagued by problems.

A common issue with corporate portals is that they’re often over-designed and over-engineered. Features like video archives, threaded discussion groups, and document management make the site complex and difficult to use. Most users won’t change their behavior to adhere to the portal, so many of these features are never used.

Another key issue is content management. Unlike Yahoo or AOL, most companies don’t have dozens of staffers managing the portal content. To overcome this, many companies delegate content management to the functional groups, but it’s often on an ad hoc, voluntary basis. With no standard process or requirement in place, content soon gets stale or impossible to navigate, and inappropriate content isn’t found and removed. Frustrated users quickly give up the portal, defaulting to established communication tools like e-mail and phone calls.

For your portal to succeed, you need to manage the process and establish a few simple guidelines:

  • Start small and grow—find out what information really needs wide distribution, and build a simple intranet to accommodate that information.
  • Follow user behavior and requirements, and upgrade the site as necessary.
  • Remember that content refresh and common navigation are crucial to making the site work.
  • Make sure that someone is empowered to work with the various departments to bring it all together.

Network convergence
One network for voice, video, and data—this initiative is brilliant in that it promises to dramatically simplify IT infrastructure, cut management costs, and focus future expansion in one place.

The biggest issue with network convergence is physical. It would be cost-prohibitive to rewire most older buildings. Aside from this, voice over IP (VoIP) adoption has been slow. Companies who’ve taken the VoIP plunge have done so to save money, not to adopt a bunch of IP vaporware applications that the industry has promised but not delivered. And how many firms do you know that need high bandwidth for video over IP?

Companies that need to reduce toll call costs, unify campuses, or create redundant voice services should move ahead with VoIP efforts but table network convergence discussions for the time being.

Just ignore the slick ads
The current recession has many CIOs focusing on needs, sharpening pencils, and prioritizing projects, yet the technology industry keeps pushing ahead with marketing-driven initiatives.

Smart CIOs won’t pay attention to vendor marketing and advertising blitzes. Rather, they’ll approach IT projects with a common methodology: Assess the business value, understand the requirements, start small, and produce measurable results at every step. You don’t need a Silicon Valley marketing budget or a Madison Avenue ad agency to benefit from this simple but effective philosophy.