As you may have gathered from earlier communiqués (see both here and here), almost nothing within a gigantic IT Transformation Programme makes any kind of sense whatsoever. The original vision is a feverish hallucination fed by half-chewed received wisdom and second-hand sound bites. The planning is board-level machismo and ego and willy-waving, without any consideration of the actual work to be done or the poor saps who might have to do it. The execution begins in confusion, rises up through panic and climaxes in paranoid hysteria and fearful misery. All of the big decisions are made by Captain Mainwarings and Rt. Hon. Jim Hackers trying their darnedest to impersonate Churchill.
But in all of the foolishness, the apex of silliness is reached with the strategic software shopping spree. To be blunt, any time one business buys anything from another, there is always the strong possibility of graft, idiocy and muddle. The Great and the Good who are nominated to decide what to buy or what price it should be are not putting their hands in their own pockets after all; they are signing cheques on behalf of their employer. This can lead to snivelling penny-pinching on the one hand, reckless profligacy on the other, and frequently an odd combination of both at precisely the same time. Where that which is to be bought is competitively supplied, widely available, simple to understand, and used by all and sundry, there is a reasonable chance of a sensible decision being made. The pros and cons of the various sellers will be easy to weigh up, and probably most of them would do a reasonable job in any case. This happy logic applies to the procurement of sandwiches, electricity, toilet cleaning, swivel chairs, post-it notes and dozens of other workaday office supplies. But sadly not to the buying of colossally expensive software solutions of dubious utility. Here, Other People’s Money is being spent on Other People’s Kit which more Other People will have to cobble together and maintain before the fourth set of Other People attempt finally to get some value out of the bloody rubbish that’s been bought for them. And none of those groups of Other People, and still less the floating symposium of architects, managers, directors and random senior stakeholders who actually made the purchasing choice in the beginning, have any terribly concrete idea of what if any real need there is to be filled, whether the junk bought fills it, or if another option might have filled the same hole easier, quicker and/or cheaper. The separation of power from responsibility, of decision from knowledge, and of actions from their hideous consequences is complete and devastating.
So, Graft, Idiocy and Muddle, then. Idiocy and muddle are the essential and ubiquitous elements of an IT Shambles and we have studied them extensively already. Let us therefore look at graft. It is jingoistically tempting to believe that backhanders, bungs and baksheesh are largely unknown amongst upright upstanding play-the-game-type Britishers. Witless idiots, football hooligans, chinless wonders, snobs, Blimps, drunks, spineless drips and bureaucrats we may be, but corrupt ? No, dang it, Sir, that rot stops at Calais ! Would that it were so, but unfortunately bribery and dodgy dealing are endemic and extend even to this scepter’d isle when fat contracts are in the offing. There is so much money swilling around when Big Company A buys Big Loads of Stuff off Big Company B that scruples and morality are easily and quickly discarded. Sales reps are genetically engineered in giant vats to salivate uncontrollably as soon as the word “bonus” is mentioned and the enormous wedges on offer when a mega software play is going down are so unbearably juicy that even St. Francis of Assisi or one of those eco-organic hippies who live in wigwams in Wales would be sorely tempted. So the desire is overwhelming, there’s a very generous entertainment budget to conjure with, all customers have soft spots and the business development boys have all the latitude they need to exploit those weaknesses in order to land that lucrative big fish.
The graft starts with your garden variety schmoozing. Meals and a few snorterinos first, then maybe a round of golf, perhaps on the third date an outing to Twickers or Glyndebourne or the O2. This stuff is all plain, simple and legal, more or less. Though to be frank it has never been clear to me how the acquisition of an externally hosted CRM system necessitates a trip by the Purchasing Manager, the IT Director and the Head of Sales at the vendor’s expense to Centre Court for a quarter-final followed by supper at The River Cafe. And that’s just the hors d’oeuvre. The next course will be junket(*). Maybe a few days game shooting in Scotland, or the Rugby Sevens in Hong Kong. Business-class travel, best hotels, top nosh, quality bubbly and, ideally, located in a territory which takes a relaxed, liberal view of sex tourism. Just a bit of fun for the lads. What happens on tour stays on tour. Everyone knows the score. As toes have been dipped into inarguably murky, definitely immoral and probably illegal waters, a bond of shared complicity is formed between salesman and target. Now a line can be crossed into outright criminality. Presents will be provided. Something portable, desirable and costly. Could be a brace of the latest whizzy gadgets, could be case of single malt, could be a snazzy watch and a Mont Blanc pen, could be a pair of handmade shoes and a bit of bespoke tailoring. But what to get the man who has already been bribed with every high-gloss male accessory at least twice ? Keep it simple, classic: a plain manila envelope on the bedside table of his hotel room generously loaded with fifteen grand in used twenties, or equivalent in other freely convertible hard currency.
This would be the straight ahead, direct fire, frontal assault approach to corruption – steadily increase the bombardment of enticements until resistance crumbles. It’s well-tried and undeniably effective, but more subtle flanking approaches are possible. Say for example we are dealing with your standard issue six to seven figure RFP(**). There will be a temporary committee of medium-sized nabobs appointed to review the proposals from the rival bidders. The basic gambit would be to nobble a couple of members, but a canny operator might twig that three out of the five bigwigs work for one even-bigger-wig. Why not in that case put the squeeze on the organ-grinder and have him sort out his monkey minions for you ? This has a few nice advantages. It puts the fix in at arms length from its effect, which will come in handy if tedious people like auditors or the Fraud Squad come sniffing around. All the wisebeards reviewing the tenders are clean, none of them having got so much as a Malteser out of making the right choice. They will therefore have convincing, well-documented answers for any nasty queries posed by quizzical cynics with a muckraking agenda. Those answers will be bolstered by the intense discussions they had with their line manager about the importance of selecting the right bid. During that series of hard, subtext-laden, arm-twisting conversations, questions will have been raised about the suitability of one offering against another on the basis of scalability, reliability, domain knowledge, cultural fit or feature match, as appropriate. Simply to ensure that all bases were covered, all risks carefully mitigated and all knowledge potholes filled, so that an ill-advised, less than rigorous decision was not stumbled into. Nobody would want that. Oh no. Job’s a good ‘un.
An Exec level bung will also be cheaper and easier than three a rung or two down the corporate ladder, even if said single bung has to be a little pricier and shinier as befits the elevated station of the one so bunged. And the further up the greasy pole you crawl, the higher the needs and the lower the ethics(***). There’s school fees to be paid, there’s second homes in the Italian Lakes to be maintained, there’s the home-cinema-cum-billiard-room-extension to be built. At these heights, the Smythe-Joneses to be kept up with just damn well keep getting richer and further ahead, the swine. Finally, in the desirable, bijou, exclusive neighbourhoods occupied by Directors of This, Heads of That , Executive Whatevers and Senior Vice Presidents of The Other, folk tend to have outside interests. In fact, they usually have so many sticky fingers in so many other juicy pies that the options for indirect palm-greasing really multiply. There might be some kit which could be purchased from a company the SVP has a large interest in. Might be an actual need for it, or there might not. Maybe the seller will need to hire some temporary staff through that same company, naturally adding a decent agency fee on top. Perhaps a bit of unrelated consultancy business could be put its helpful way. Nothing too taxing. Maybe so non-taxing in fact that it doesn’t actually need doing at all. Could be there’s an idiot son, trophy wife or useless drunk brother-in-law that a kindly supplier will selflessly find a job for. The list of possibilities is limited only by the creativity of the Sales Team. You scratch my back. Nudge nudge. Say no more.
Of course, your particular outfit might be sainted, spotless, upright and honest all the way up from the tea-lady to the MD. It’s deeply unlikely but it could be so. Never mind – if corruption doesn’t get you to the wrong decision, those old IT Shambles workhorses Idiocy and Muddle will do the trick just as well. Stuff will be bought because the chap selling it has a nice tie or tells good jokes. Or maybe because someone read about it in a glossy magazine. Simply everyone is moving to a cloud-based implementation of eMaxiToss3000 including three of your closest competitors. Never underestimate the power of the herd mentality. “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM equipment”, as the old saw has it. I mean to say, if all the other guys have swapped their only cow for a handful of them Magic Beans, there’s gotta be something in ‘em. Hasn’t there ?
(*) Junket as in expenses-funded international jetset jolly. Not this sort of junket:
Nobody’s touched that stuff since at least 1983
(**) RFP. Request For Proposal. A series of forms (usually a massive multi-dimensional spreadsheet which if it were to be printed out one could comfortably use to wrap up a family of blue whales) to be filled in by prospective sellers which will then provide a thoroughgoing and objective basis of information against which a transparent, unbiased, scientific buying decision can be made. Yeah. Right.
(***) Too harsh ? Maybe, but you don’t have to take my word for it. Better folk than I have made similar points.
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Jesus said that. Bloody leftie pinko.