In these Modern Progressive Times, Change is universally held to be a Good Thing. Uplifting slogans abound. “Change or Die !” “He who rejects change is the architect of decay !” “Change that works for you !” “Be the change you wish to see in the world !” “Can’t we just leave the blasted thing alone, for Christ’s sake ?”(*)
Everyone agrees that change is always fantastic; ergo, the simple fact that something will be different from what has gone before is nowadays used on its own to justify the change in its entirety. Again, one-liners proliferate, with the speaker shooting for gutsy machismo seasoned with an attempt at salty, flint-eyed realism “To tread water is to drown slowly” “We cannot go on as we are” “The organisation is not fit for purpose in its current state” “The status quo is not an option.”
The Status Quo. Not an option. Not in my house, anyhow –we do have some standards.
This logic of continual upheaval and contingent pandemonium pertains in all walks of life. People will move into a perfectly serviceable house and declare with a straight face that there’s no way that kitchen is compatible with their modern lifestyle. It’s gotta go. Ditto the arrival of a new head honcho at work. Cronies are hired, long-serving journeymen fired, departments outsourced, functions brought back in-house, hierarchies flattened or erected anew and last year’s strategic goals turned inside out, upside down and arse backwards. And of course in the world of IT Shambles, all of this applies on toast with knobs on right up the wazoo to the power of 97. At the drop of a hat, whole swathes of sturdy and serviceable systems will be declared obsolete and multi-million pound transformation projects commissioned to sweep them into the Dustbin Of History. We Techno-Bolsheviks have embraced the concept of Permanent Revolution with a zeal that would make Trotsky weep.
Permanent revolution didn’t produce altogether positive outcomes in Russia. Or in China. Or in Cambodia. Or … well, pretty much anywhere. Even the French gave it up after Waterloo. Trashing all existing institutions, declaring today Day One of Year Zero and sending all the intellectuals out to plant rice in the fields have by now generally been accepted as Bad Ideas and abandoned politically everywhere outside North Korea. But sadly, as common sense, pragmatism and sanity returned to geopolitics in the closing decades of the 20th century, they flew out the bleeding window in the arena of corporate IT. Conceivably, some time in the mid 80s communes full of neo-Marxists shaved their beards off, bought a job lot of double-breasted suits, swapped mung bean curry for nouvelle cuisine and rebranded themselves as Transformation Consultants, Enterprise Architects and Technology Evangelists. The more I muse on it, the more this hypothesis becomes plausible; the ideology has been dumped but the baseless zeal, the ability to ignore the overwhelming evidence of ones senses and the alternation of snappy soundbites with impenetrable jargon has been carried over completely intact.
“At Waterloo, Napoleon did surrender … The history book … is always repeating itself.” The leading Scandinavian cultural theorists of the 1970s embrace Fabian gradualism and reconfirm the doctrine of Historic Recurrence as delineated by Marx, Hegel and Nietszche.
But why must it be so ? How does yesterday’s strategic target platform become the legacy albatross of today which will be burned to cinders by the incandescent splendour of tomorrow’s virtualised cloud-based enterprise-ready phoenix ? What leads companies to spend gazillions on a best-in-class blue chip solution one year only to spend yet more gazillions the next year replacing it ?
The primary reason is ignorance. Plain, unvarnished, pig-ignorance. Once one gets a few inches above the absolute rock bottom of decision making (i.e. anything more involved than what do you want for lunch ? Or, shall we go to Grimsby for our summer holidays ?), no one has a the faintest glimmer of a foggy half-articulated notion what the hell they want or need or how to go about getting it. So choices are made instead on a melange of blind guesswork, plausible yarns, herd instinct, fear, hubris and the desperate urge to be or pass for or at worst convince the more gullible that one is a Great Thinker, Visionary and Leader of Men. Take those basic facts, lob them into the terrifyingly complex and twisted arena of business computer systems and twenty million quid is already round the U-bend and half way to the Humber Estuary.
Let us perform a brief Thought Experiment. Imagine if you will that you wake up tomorrow morning and find that, through some Kafkaesque clerical error, you have been appointed Chief Technology Officer of Rather Big Bank PLC. After you stop gibbering, shaking and sweating, what do you do next ? Well, you’ll probably get a few months grace to get a rough feel for the Hell you’ve been consigned to, and in those few months you will discover that:
- There are at least four distinct lumps of software filling any given role. Five for mortgages, seven for savings accounts, and no less than 16 online customer portals. The total count has just tipped over 600 live applications, but still each week your besuited flunkeys discover a couple more.
- The company operates twelve data centres, with at least one on every permanently inhabited continent. To the best of your knowledge, there are no servers on Antarctica but this cannot be completely verified.
- You hold sway over 10,000 techno-peasants toiling amidst 178 teams working in 55 buildings spread over 40 cities, 25 countries and 15 working languages worldwide. If the 60 or so souls you have met since you started can be taken as a representative sample, then 30% know what they are doing, 30% can find their arseholes with both hands so long as the procedure to do so is extensively documented, 30% would struggle with a job on the bins and the remaining 10% are irredeemable arse-lickers. It truly is a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-national empire of idiocy – an Austria-Hungary of Business Computing. And can be expected to do as well in any serious test as the Dual Monarchy did during the Great War.
- Your raggle-taggle polyglot empire speaks a lot of different electronic dialects too. It runs maybe 15,000 machines spread across dozens of different flavours of hardware, operating system, protocol and programming language. These run the historical gamut from COBOL to Clojure with even the odd fag end of Fortran in some particularly dusty corners. And let us not forget the two mission critical bits of kit based on a home-brewed compiler some looney cooked up in the mid 90s cuz it seemed like a good idea at the time.
It’s a shambles. Absolute screaming chaos. Rush hour in Delhi. There is no order or commonality or standardisation or method or sense or rhyme or reason in it at all. Just layer upon layer of kludges, creditable efforts, half-baked brainfarts, hackery-pokery and Ancient Black Magic lashed together with bell wire, tin foil, gaffer tape, string and the electro-digital equivalent of sticky back plastic. Somehow it just about hangs together, but not without long delays, occasional fatal crashes and sickeningly frequent near misses
So. What is to be done ? Everyone’s looking to you. You are the last hope for transforming this anarchic shanty town into a Disciplined Glittering Streamlined City of the Future. They think you’re The One. The Man of Destiny. Maybe by now you think so yourself. So whether from a grim sense of duty or due to massive sun-eclipsing ego, you decide to accept the laurels. You are the Big Man: Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Winston Churchill, John Wayne, Steven Seagal, whoever floats your boat. You slip your hand inside the lapel of your jacket, gaze into the middle distance, drop your voice an octave and declaim gruffly to the expectant masses your Grand Utopian Vision. Virtual. Everything’s going to be Virtual. And Outsourced. And In the Cloud, and Packaged, and Open Source. You haven’t quite thought it through. You’d been reading through some back issues of The Economist, Wired and Computer Weekly your predecessor left in your office. It’s all stewed around inside your noggin for a while and has come out as a Lancashire Hot-Pot of received business IT wisdom. No matter. With ironclad self-belief, a bottomless well of laboured metaphors, a smorgasbord of garbled buzzwords, an intimidating stare and the enthusiastic cheerleading of your senior brownnosing yes-men, the concept is sold.
Next, the elaboration. Time to turn your off-the-cuff ramblings into the well-padded plausible yarn against which many millions can be flushed away. There will be workshops. Many, many workshops. Not the useful sort of workshops where metal is welded, double-glazing units assembled or watches repaired(**). Oh no. The sort where half-clued people declaim half-baked opinions on capabilities, roadmaps, emergent opportunities, strategic challenges and operational fault lines.
At least this stage is painless and for some of those involved, even entertaining. Everybody loves the sound of their own voice and, if there’s an audience of fellow windbags to pontificate at and all agree to pretend that it matters, so much the better. There may even be a trolley brought in with butties and cakes, so that beats working into a cocked hat straightaway. Catering steps up and up as workshopping intensifies and ever more senior staff are involved. When finally the Directors are roped in, the coffee will be artisanal Javanese, the biscuits will be generously draped in Belgian chocolate and there will be dainty pastry latticework canapés a-go-go. Oh Yes. Big League Big Budget Big High-Building consultancy will need to be engaged to advise, facilitate, shape, inform and, above all, submit invoices to the programme of work. Gartner. Accenture. Tata. Atos. Cap Gemini. What the hell, all of the above. By this point, the costs incurred by your embryonic transformation project are moving beyond “substantial” and rapidly toward “eye-watering”. Taking your expensive advisors, staff time and top-drawer confectionary into account you’re already into six figures. Thus it becomes necessary to have a plan to justify the whole damn thing. A Big Plan. nay, a Road Map, a veritable World Atlas of potential, possible, fictional future progress and products. Once drafted, it can be mounted on full colour exhibition displays five yards wide in the foyer of every one of your 55 offices worldwide. For a nice little cherry on top, print up and distribute mouse-mats, mugs, paperweights, post-its and calendars with the edited highlights children’s Ladybird version. Now all your peons wherever they are can be continually reminded of the Big Picture as they toil away at their petty daily desk endeavours.
As you now have a Big Plan with the beginnings of a Big Portfolio of Big Projects, you’re gonna need a Programme Director. He’s gonna have to be a Big Guy. He’s going to need staff. Lots of staff. Some Big Hitters. Guys that can handle Big Problems. Guys that know how to deal with the Big Suppliers. Because you’ll need to get the Big Battalions in. Fujitisu. IBM. Logica. Infosys. CapGemini. All the Big Boys. They’ll need Big Contracts. You’re going to need Big Legal Counsel to advise. Big container lorries full of Big Tin to run it on. And you don’t get anything Big for Small Change. You’ll need a budget. A Big Budget. A Really Big Budget. Tens of Millions, certainly. Hundreds of Millions, maybe. Billions ? One should never be over-awed by scale. They didn’t build The Glory That Was Rome with a few hundred quid, a bag of sand and a pallet full of breeze blocks.
Let us pause for breath here, right at the end of what we shall call the Heroic Period of your Transformation Programme. The Ambition is Broad and Deep. The Potential is Limitless. The Dream is Pure, unsullied as yet by any cack-handed attempts to put theory into practice. The vendors are brimming with confidence. Your senior team are pumped up and ready to go. The Board are as keen as mustard. If only we could freeze-frame at the crest of this Big Wave for all time. But all waves must assuredly crash against the rocks, soaking as they do the benches on the promenade, and depositing their briny cargo of empty pop bottles, dead sea-gulls and used contraceptives on the beach in front of the Sea Life Centre. Let us observe how your particular big wave might very well break on the shore next time.
(*) Unknown, Harold Wilson, daft tagline for the 2010 Liberal Democrat manifesto, Gandhi and me respectively.
(**) “Anyone who uses the word ‘workshop’ who isn’t connected with light engineering is a wanker.” Alexei Sayle. Vicious, indiscriminate and unforgiving but entirely fair.
(***) Cumbernauld, North Lanarkshire, Central Scotland. Generously described as “a depressing post-war new town consisting of nothing one would wish ever to see again.”