To prepare, I interviewed each participant ahead of time to get a sense of his top concerns so that I could create the agenda.
In light of the buzz we've all been hearing around green computing, I wanted to find out where that topic ranked on their lists. When I asked, I felt a surprising, but distinct, global cooling.
"It's not a high priority," groaned the senior vice president of IT at a medical services company in the Midwest.
"It's minor for us," yawned the vice president of enterprise architecture and planning at a West Coast entertainment firm.
Before I had made it through even half of my pre-roundtable interviews, I stopped asking the question. In the end, there was no discussion of green computing on the agenda.
I didn't get it. With energy costs skyrocketing, why weren't these guys more concerned with finding ways to cut their power consumption? Why did they have so little interest in sharing experiences and best practices so they could put those enormous sums of money to better use? What was I missing?
And then it clicked. I had cast a pall over the question by how I phrased it. The pall was green.
There was a time when "green" connoted something that was dear to the hearts of all corporate executives. Green was the color of money. Now it's the hue of tree-huggers' cheeks, and IT executives are dealing with far too many headaches to let themselves be led on an environmental guilt trip. When a CIO is trying to help steer the corporate ship through recessionary waters, and he's worrying about what will happen if it capsizes, don't start whining about oil spills. Right or wrong, he doesn't want to hear it.
It's as if green has become the poison ivy of the corporate IT agenda. And vendors are hardly providing any calamine. Instead, they're spreading the irritation in the form of green marketing hype, falling over themselves to be perceived as enablers of a green data center.
It reminds me of the phenomenon about two years ago, when utility computing (a.k.a. "autonomic computing" or "on-demand computing") was the buzzphrase du jour. IT vendors were recasting their product and marketing strategies around it, and start-ups were forming to position themselves as dedicated utility-computing resources.
One of those start-ups was Cassatt, a company created by Bill Coleman, who had previously co-founded BEA Systems. Cassatt's initial flagship product was a dynamic resource provisioning tool called Collage, and Coleman hawked it as a utility computing godsend.
What's especially interesting is that if you go to Cassatt's Web site today, you'll find no reference to Collage, and "utility computing" is upstaged by "active power management" and the proclamation that "Cassatt software makes data centers more efficient -- and more green." Click on the Products tab, and you're taken to a page that depicts the greening of a potted shrub.
I met with Coleman last November, and I asked him about the green repositioning. "Was there some sort of brainstorming session at Cassatt that said, 'This green thing is all the buzz; maybe we should move our pitch around that'?" I asked. "Was that the way it worked?"
Coleman's response was as refreshing as a spring rain. "Ultimately," he said, "I'd say that is the way it worked."
Of course it is. But I don't know of many CEOs who would have been as gutsy and honest in acknowledging it.
The zealous usurpation of the green moniker by marketers, combined with visions of priority-challenged enviro-nannies that the label often conjures, is creating a backlash that's stealing attention from the energy issue.