Out with the old and in with the new
This week I have been preparing for a new course I have to teach – research of course goes out of the window at this point! I’ve been doing this on a regular basis since, I don’t know when, but many years.
You would think I might just take this in my stride and that by now it would just be a matter of dusting off the old notes and sailing forth. But no, each time things have to be updated and changed to fit the new audience. Some of the old stuff is still relevant but much needs re-thinking and updating. That’s the trouble with the information management world, it changes pretty rapidly and one has to run to stand still.
Why didn’t I choose to be a historian or a mathematician, where things don’t change so quickly? Actually, there is a good reason: I wasn’t very good at either of those subjects. In fact as a student I wasn’t much good at anything, and certainly not at political science, which was my chosen degree course! As part of the degree I took an option in computing and found to my amazement that I liked programming and was quite good at it. On leaving University there were no jobs so I started an MA in Latin American Politics, just as a way to defer any serious decision making. But after the first term I had run out of money and didn’t want to incur too much debt. Laughable now when one considers the amount that today’s students incur.
So I decided to get a job and the only areas recruiting at the time were in IT, and so somewhat accidentally I joined the fledgling IT industry. I started work programming a computer called LEO, standing for Lyons Electronic Office (the LEO 326 in fact). LEO computers now reside in museums but J. Lyons & Co. (the bakery and Tea Shop people) who developed LEO are credited with the advent of business computing. In fact the LEO machines are also lauded for their advanced design, incorporating the classic von-Neumann architecture, which is still used in all computers, including iPads and mobile phones today.
The application of computer power for non-scientific applications, i.e., what was termed Data Processing initially but is now known as business computing or information systems (IS), was what intrigued me. However, I soon came to realise that developing business applications was not easy or trivial and that the real problems, as the technology improved, was not in writing the code but was in fully understanding the business and the business processes, and all that entailed, before attempting to ‘computerise’ them. I then spent much of my time trying to persuade people of this simple, and to me, obvious fact.
I was, however, singularly unsuccessful in this quest and time after time business systems would fail in various ways and the technology or ‘computerisation’ would be blamed when what had really happened was that the ‘specifications’ for the system were inadequate, inconsistent, and lacking detail, and that the systems developed could not be easily changed. Somewhat surprisingly this is still the case today.
In my time in the IT industry, as programmer, systems analyst, project leader and cosultant, I learnt a number of lessons in this context. First, that typically ‘the business’ did not really know what it wanted, especially for the future, second, that existing business processes were often confused, inadequate and not well understood, and third, that existing confusing and conflicting processes were often solved, or at least resolved, on the fly by humans and the application of human intelligence. Thus, computerisation of these processes was not simple and often involved resolving existing and underlying business problems and conflicts first. Companies were of course very unwilling to do this or invest the time and money necessary.
IT companies and consultants conspired in this confusion and peddled the idea that all problems could be solved by buying their computing equipment and software. When things went wrong, either before or after implementation, the clients only option was to buy more expensive developers time and ‘consultancy’ from their existing vendors, leading to late and expensive systems, well over the original budgets. And as a consequence large profits for the vendors! This is still the case today, and Public Sector management is particularly prone to this kind of scam.
I then joined the academic world and came back on a regular basis to consideration of these problems. I undertook many studies and cases of IS development and in fact became something of an expert on information systems (IS) development approaches and methodologies. But, new and supposedly better approaches came and went, but still the problems persisted. That is not to say that successful systems did not exist, they did and I studied a number of them, but still many failed or struggled, and they still do. In fact this morning’s paper was filled with the problems of IT in the US in relation to the systems supporting ‘Obamacare’, some of which are not ready and others of which are not fit for purpose. This at least indicates that it is not just in the UK that such problems exist. However, we do take the biscuit so far and claim the “World’s Biggest IT Failure ” courtesy of the NHS, at a cost to the taxpayer of £10b – so far!
Solutions to these perennial problem are of course difficult to come by but not impossible. So back to what should I teach my students? And how can I convince them that they have an important role to play in this, when they typically believe that the world is now digital and that business is simply improved by the waving of a technological wand. I no longer have to persuade them of the relevance of IT, they know that.What I have to persuade them is that it is not simple or straight-forward and cannot just be left to IT specialists.
To have effective systems they have to intervene and participate. Management need to understand what goes on under the systems development bonnet and, at least metaphorically, get their hands dirty. This, the typical management student, does not want to do. So how do I persuade them that as future managers their most effective learning is about IS and Information Management? Hmm. Well, that’s probably impossible, and I’ve not got much time, so it’s back to the dusty notes!
Blog post by Professor Guy Fitzgerald, member of the Centre for Information Management