I saw a wonderful documentary last night about the conjuror and professional sceptic James Randi. After the first part of a career spent emulating and improving upon the work of Harry Houdini, Randi since the 70s has put much of his efforts into debunking fraudster faith healers and spiritualists (including waging a war on spoonbender Uri Geller).

One of the challenges for such myth busters is that even when you are able to demonstrate that all of the things done by someone claiming the power of the paranormal can be done through trickery, believers will retort “but you’re doing that through stage magic –  they are doing it through the power of their mind/the dead/aliens (delete as appropriate).”

This is further has been further hampered for Randi by the academic field of Parapsychology, the formal field studying such paranormal activity. Randi argues (and has demonstrated) that academics in that area seem to have such underlying faith that such phenomenon exist that they are unable to objectively study the subject and are able to be hoodwinked as a result.

It got me thinking. Maybe those of us who rally against the efficacy of big IT projects are facing a similar challenge. No matter how often we point to IT failures, suggest that outcomes could be achieved as effectively through other means, provide evidence of better ways… well, no matter how often we’ll hear “Yes, but this time…” in response.

There is blind faith that big IT projects will deliver big benefits. A blind faith that creates business cases that objectively show the true way will win out (being created by the IT equivalent of parapsychologists). A collective denial of the failures and over-optimism of the potential. An entire industry of snake oil salespeople peddling the myths…

Don’t get me wrong – I believe that technology can change things, and can make immensely positive contribution. It’s just that most of the big successes come from small roots and are organic, not systematic: the web, email, SMS, social networks, Microsoft Excel… none of them came from centrally-planned initiatives, and all demonstrate flexibility of use and adoption at the user’s end in a way that, say, an ERP or CRM system just doesn’t. Faith in those big project, centrally planned approaches still appears unquestionable, despite the sceptics.

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