The idea game

How slow is the business-news business these days? So slow that The Wall Street Journal's online edition is working on a story about companies that have developed grammar policies for e-mail. That's right: At a time when you'd expect everyone to be laser-focused on keeping costs down and maximizing productivity, some executives are fretting about whether the verbs are conjugated correctly in employees' e-mail -- and the Journal wants to write about them.

Finished laughing? Good. Now what are you going to do when your CEO decides he wants to implement an e-grammar policy, too?

Sure, it sounds a little silly. But hey, times are tough. Every company needs any edge it can get. And if a grammatically correct e-mail message impresses a prospect just enough to tip the competitive scales in your company's favor, it may be worth a shot.

And why would your CEO come to IT about this? Because it's a lot cheaper and easier to bolt a grammar checker onto your e-mail system than to send every employee to remedial grammar classes. At least that's what your CEO is going to think.

Your CEO is also going to think that you can come up with some cost-effective ways to do it. And that you can make it happen fast. And that the result will improve even his messages.

So, what should you do? That depends -- but don't just treat this idea like one of those in-flight inspirations.

You remember them. Back when you still had a full staff and budget, your CEO used to return from business trips with loopy IT ideas that came from airline in-flight magazines. Usually they sounded very interesting -- but were completely impractical or inappropriate for what your company was doing with IT.

And usually you could either talk him out of it or just let the idea die from lack of action. In-flight inspiration tended to have a pretty short life span.

As time went by, you got less of that. Maybe you didn't notice, but somewhere during the Internet frenzy, your CEO got a little more tech-literate, so those loopy in-flight ideas stopped sounding so good. And sometime after the economy started sinking, the idea of burning budget dollars based on something torn from a giveaway airline magazine stopped seeming so smart.

So why would your CEO start bringing in ideas again? First: They won't be coming from airline magazines. They'll come from business newspapers and magazines. These are sources your CEO trusts for business information. He'll trust their IT suggestions, too.

Second: Your CEO may now believe he can't afford not to be involved in IT. Sarbanes-Oxley and security and lots of other hot-button business issues depend on IT today. But so do little tweaks that could give your company that tiny bit of competitive edge. He doesn't want to miss those opportunities.

And you shouldn't miss those opportunities either. Don't dismiss your CEO's new suggestions like so many in-flight inspirations. He believes IT matters. Leverage that belief.

Get back to him fast with real analysis and real options. Don't encourage bad ideas, but nudge not-so-bad ideas in the right direction. Warn him of what they would cost in budget and delays to other projects -- which, not incidentally, will give those projects high-level visibility. Point out the limits of the technology -- and demonstrate that you value the human element in business.

And even if an idea sounds a little silly to you, remember that those silly little ideas can pay off big for you. This is a chance to make your IT department look smart, responsive and business-savvy in front of the guy who can decide either to invest in your shop or outsource a big chunk of it.

So stop laughing. Take it seriously. It might be a good idea. But even if the business doesn't get any real advantage from it, that's no reason you shouldn't.

- Frank Hayes, Computerworld's senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at

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