Look back to get ahead

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18 January 2016 | 0

This is traditionally the time of the year to look ahead, in business as in life generally, to anticipate what is coming and to plan for the best outcomes. People like to wipe the slate and start afresh, usually with a bit more optimism. So it is summer holiday brochures and even discounted booking and a positive approach to business budgets even before last year’s results are fully signed off.

But sometimes it is no harm to look back. Of course it can be more instructive, learning lessons and all of that. But that old dismissive phrase about 20/20 hindsight is an optimist’s cop-out. Hindsight is usually more accurate, blurred only by the guilty regrets of those who screwed up. There has, for example, been a whole mini-era in recent years when we repudiated the culture of large and long IT projects that had been the dominant strategy in all major organisations for several decades. How quickly (and willingly) we forgot.

“Today’s ultra-mobile ICT is a tectonic paradigm shift, certainly. But once you grasp that it is all digital and the unit is a computer not just a phone, all of the old principles and hard-earned lessons come back. Or they should”

Big projects
In those ancient days (earlier this century) there were 18-month systems and software projects — sometimes even longer! Since the systems platforms were chosen at the beginning of such projects, and often at the design spec stage up to a year earlier, the potential for reliance on technology close to its ‘sell by’ date was always high. IT people tried to anticipate this, of course, which is why the Big Names always figured in the specs because there was felt to be some guarantee of product continuity and/or backward compatibility. These projects were driven or informed by two aspirational objectives: to be comprehensive from the first roll-out, covering all of the functionality and user needs, and to be pre-tested from the earliest stages to minimise the risk of any failure in part or, God forbid, in the whole.

We now know that this is an oldfashioned engineering approach, all too close to the civil and structural mantra ‘Over-specify by 100% [Pick any number] and you can’t go far wrong.’ Trying to engineer out failure in advance has a logic to it but does not really work in practice. For openers, in software and indeed in business systems generally it is often impossible to envisage all possible scenarios in advance — or indeed user mistakes. The other huge area is interaction with other systems. It is a major challenge to engineer integration with what is already there: to correctly and universally anticipate what may arise in the near future is impossible.

More importantly, the consequences of failed attempts are not foreseeable because they may depend on multiple underlying factors, like the hardware or third party software. So some failures will be simply that — it does not work. Others will trigger a cascade of potentially disastrous consequences, corrupting systems and data. Yes, APIs have become better and more reliable. One of the great uses of cloud is to replicate a working environment and test modifications in a virtual sandbox. So in truth the dangers are less than they were in the days of the Mega Projects. But we have already moved on to apps and Agile and a completely new and different mind-set in systems development.

Divergence
Looking back, perhaps that era of large scale comprehensive IT projects was also when the Chief of IT role began a slow process of divergence between two broad strands of thinking about IT management in the organisation. One clearly led to the CIO, with that combination of responsibility for legacy investments (’keeping the lights on’) and innovation in line with the business strategy. The other and ever more sparky strand has always been on the lookout for new tech, ever willing to succumb to temptation if it looks like adding something to the business or just to the user experience. As the boundaries between corporate and consumer tech have become thoroughly fudged, there are tens of thousands of examples of where this outgoing enthusiasm has in fact brought value and often competitive advantage. On the other hand, unsanctioned, grey and ghost software has frequently caused problems in organisations. Even where it has been of positive value the contribution has been compromised because the tech or data has been an outlier and not part of the corporate totality. Risky, in other words, and decidedly lacking in team ethic.

But the CIO side, the establishment line of thinking, still finds it hard to accept maverick ICT enthusiasms much less work with them. The same attitude still distrusts BYOD, while reluctantly recognising its inevitability. Genuine security concerns do generally underpin that viewpoint. So we have today something of a dichotomy between two of the traditional responsibilities of the CIO — protecting and consolidating the organisation’s current and legacy systems and facilitating corporate innovation with the appropriate technology.

Now that last sentence is intended to be an accurate representation of the position and therefore highlight an important irony: very often today the innovative thing is the new tech or its application, which in turn drives or elicits the corporate innovation. We talk regularly about ICT aligning itself with the business. Fair enough, except that all too often it is the business that is conservative and the latest technology that offers new opportunities. Inevitably, there will be a younger (or tech enthusiast) cohort who will spot the potential long before anyone else. In corporate IT, Enter The Shadow now begins.

Some senior ICT people think this is a new phenomenon, but it is not. From the first green shoots of empowering personal computing in the early 1980s — the first Mac and PC, certainly the first lovable luggable* — bright, keen people have invested personally in technology and then used it for both business and their own purposes. Their intentions were completely honourable for the most part: here was a way of doing things better.

Practical applications
Another thing that began to happen after the advent of the personal computer, and later its networking in the organisation, is that smart people without a qualification in computing started to learn a great deal about its practical applications. The CIO equivalent without a formal background in IT is not a new phenomenon. In fact, Irish business folk memory would suggest that the techies were such geeks that most of them were unsuitable for management positions outside of the actual computer room. They did not really grasp business or sales beyond the processes and procedures, much less people and their unpredictable nature.  Could it be that some IT heads are still just a little bit like that today?

The points essentially are that there is seldom anything all that new in ICT and that its practical use in organisations is as much cultural as technical, and has always been so. Yes, cloud and its technology is new, but in many respects the principles are not all that much different from mainframe or server-based computing with remote log-in. Today’s ultra-mobile ICT is a tectonic paradigm shift, certainly. But once you grasp that it is all digital and the unit is a computer not just a phone, all of the old principles and hard-earned lessons come back. Or they should.

The trouble, of course, is that like military veterans, poll-hardened politicians and aged actors, acknowledgement of, and even admiration for, former achievement does not translate into guidance for today. We seldom benefit from any but the most obvious misjudgements in history because lessons can really only be learned the hard way by those who go through the experience. Everything else is just somebody’s theory.

And there are very few grizzled IT veterans (or even commentarians) around who have been long enough in the game to point to the past for enlightenment. Only those who have been there get that occasional feeling of ‘Haven’t we been here before?’ Yet at this beginning of a new year, looking back — even just within the confines of your own organisation and its ICT history — might be as useful and even illuminating as any other preparation for the next steps forward.

*  A title that could go to either Compaq or the slightly earlier Osborne, usually Compaq because it was IBM PC compatible.  

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