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Putting a bullet in the "aw, shucks" defence.
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Written by Brian Haverty, Contributor on


commentary Putting a bullet in the "aw, shucks" defence.
If the verdict in the WorldCom fraud trial of chief executive Bernard J. Ebbers hadn't come out the way it did, this might've been a much different column. But, thank goodness, the verdict was guilty and the world is not going to Hell in a handcart (not directly, anyway).
Let's just set aside for a moment the fact that, if we thought about it, would there be anyone who would not like technology to be easier to understand?

I have to say that I didn't have high hopes. Ebbers' defence -- what has been almost universally characterised as the "aw, shucks" defence -- has gotten a lot people off in the past. It's a great tactic -- one that could just as easily be called the "Homer Simpson defence" (It was like that when I got here), or the "Hahn Light defence" (where the "sensitive, new age" male cannonballs into the spa his girlfriend is lounging in and can only respond "What?"). And we're trained from a very young age to know just how effective this defence can be. "I was studying over at Dave's... I didn't know anything about the party in the next room". "Those cigarettes in my bag? I'm, erm, holding them for a friend." "Jus cuz we din't find any weapons of mass destruction don't mean they ain't any!" It just works.
But not repeatedly it seems. And as more big business fraud cases come to trial, hopefully the WorldCom trend will continue.
I bring up the Ebbers case in particular because it seems to resonate with quite a few of the themes that pop up in the magazine. Here we have a fairly high-tech company, with offices worldwide, and yet the chief executive officer has told the court that (1) "I don't know about technology", and (2) "I don't know about finance and accounting"!

In the pages of this publication we often deal with situations where, say, the tech team is not fully up to speed with some of the business processes, or conversely where the financial team might be having trouble getting the information it needs from the corporate software package, but to have the CEO say he doesn't know about technology, finance, or accounting -- that's just taking it to a new level. Can you imagine the repercussions if that defence actually worked?

There were indeed some shaky moments before the jury left to deliberate. Like when Assistant US Attorney William Johnson told the jury that the "aw, shucks" defence was an insult to their intelligence. I always thought you didn't need to tell people that (they might find it insulting), but thankfully not.
US writers Greg Farrell and Del Jones portrayed the news this way: "If there ever was a golden age of CEO ignorance, a time when the top executive could claim to be unaware of their company's financial health, that era is long over."
The reason I bring all this up in these pages is that this trend is going to be especially interesting to watch for in the IT industry. As evidenced in Mr Ebbers' defence, not being able to understand technology has been a handy excuse. Now, hopefully, it will be one that is simply not accepted anymore.
Let's just set aside for a moment the fact that, if we thought about it, would there be anyone who would not like technology to be easier to understand? Don't think so. Even the techiest people I know have their blind spots in some areas.
The big danger of letting people get away with "aw, shucks" is that it forces legislators to try to come up with more statutes and regulations to keep things above board (so to speak). Unfortunately, if there's one person who knows less about IT than your CEO, it's probably your representative in government.
Brian Haverty is Editorial Director of ZDNet Australia. Give him a piece of your mind at edit@zdnet.com.au.

This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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