Risk Taking: Time for a Comeback

Risk taking has been replaced by risk assessment, risk analysis, risk management and, ultimately, risk avoidance.

September 15, 2003

2 Min Read
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Nowhere is risk taking more evident--and critical--than in the high-stakes world of high tech. Those technology vendors that played it safe over the years (think Digital Equipment) are part of the industry folklore. Those that mustered the courage to reinvent themselves (think IBM) have not only the luxury of survival, but also the awesome responsibility and financial rewards of industry leadership. Among IT users, Wal-Mart has boldly bet its business on supply-chain, inventory and point-of-sale technologies, so successfully that it's now the biggest company in the world. In a PC/server market infamous for its paper-thin margins, Dell can regularly slash prices and still count on healthy profits thanks to an IT-driven business model that eschews conventional manufacturing and distribution.

Four-Letter Word

Over the past several years, however, risk became a four-letter word among the IT set. Funding for start-ups dried up. In many cases, only the most stable vendors made customer shortlists. Only those projects with the clearest financial returns were approved. Risk taking was replaced by risk assessment, risk analysis, risk communication, risk management and, ultimately, risk avoidance. Actuaries and auditors seized the reins of corporate power from the visionaries.

Of course, this shift in temperament wasn't completely without merit. During the wonder years, tech vendors overpromised and overextended. Executives ran their companies to impress impressionable investors (or to enlarge their personal fortunes) rather than to generate profits. Business plans and projects were funded with little regard for their potential. No wonder so many companies failed or recoiled. Risk is one thing; foolishness and greed are another.

Nonetheless, the high-tech community has hunkered down for too long. We harrumph when the Harvard Business Review theorizes that IT has become a commodity, but if we're building, buying and doing pretty much what every other IT shop is building, buying and doing--managing our information technology risk down to zero--then hasn't our IT become a commodity?Signs are mixed on whether risk taking is making a comeback. Eighty-six percent of the 48 tech-oriented venture capital firms surveyed recently by Venator Partners said they're deal hunting more actively than they were a year ago. Overall, however, tech VC funding is flat, with wireless, security and anti-spam start-ups drawing attention at the expense of pure communications and networking plays.

Although IT managers are more confident than they were earlier this year about the overall economic climate, according to an InformationWeek survey, only 31 percent of the 889 respondents would go so far as to say they're optimistic about their companies' IT spending plans. In fact, the InformationWeek IT Confidence Index is still down 36 percent from March 2001, when it was introduced. Apparently, the IT community isn't quite ready to go off on another spending binge. Good thing. But don't get too comfortable placing your safe bets.

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