In the last years of the 19th century, we read, people across the western world were in party spirit, eager to usher in an even greater age, and particularly excited about the technological advances of that era.
In the dying years of our own century, there is a very different mood, despite all the millennium festivals, domes and other activities planned.
We are beset with dire warnings about 2000 – the knock-on effect of the Asian currency crisis, European monetary confusion, the dreaded millennium computer bug – all are set to peak around the turn of the century.
The millennium bug sums it up really: like the medieval prophets of doom, we believe the third millennium will bring only disaster and recession, and we no longer have the confidence that our technology can control the situation. In fact, we are keen to blame technology for many of the problems.
This mood is evident not only in the tabloid headlines, but also in business and particularly in IT departments. But, according to Gwynneth Flower – head of government Y2K bug group, Action 2000 – the most likely trigger for global recession in 2000 is the very belief that it will happen. Speaking at an online global conference in August to mark 500 days to the millennium, she sagely pointed out that many recessions and other disasters arise from a crisis of confidence rather than a crisis of computers or currencies.
But this isn’t just another column attempting to play down the Y2K problem.
After all, those revellers of the 1890s might have done better to have been more pessimistic, given that the Great War and the Great Depression were just around the corner. Indeed, the issue here isn’t really Y2K at all – but rather the disturbing trend in the IT world that the bug represents.
That is, the tendency to hide bad business decisions behind a range of dramatic sounding excuses, most of which are bound up with IT.
The skills shortage, the applications backlog, the failure to invest in training, the evil habit of vendors to oversell pretty
useless technology – all have been trotted out as excuses for companies failing to implement effective IT systems. Of course, there is some substance to all of them, but they have been cited so often that their impact is rarely questioned. In fact, as most consultancies are well aware, IT systems don’t work because they have been wrongly specified and do not meet the needs of the business – and that is usually down to a failure by business rather than IT specialists to identify those needs.
For this reason, the millennium bug – for all its potentially disastrous effects – has been a godsend for hard-pressed business and IT managers looking for a scapegoat. “We can’t compete with company X till we have a new IT system … we can’t develop the system till the Y2K bug is fixed … we can’t fix the bug till we find sufficient skills …” and so it goes on.
Of course there are areas where the bug just has to be fixed – the ones that are the subject of the more sensational headlines. We cannot ignore some of the horrors raised at the 500 Days to Go conference: the head of US nuclear power admitting that some stations would not be ready and would have to be closed down, and the old chestnut about airlines being grounded.
But, in the average company, the date change problems are not a matter of life and death and could have been fixed far less traumatically with more foresight – and, often, a willingness to invest in new packages to replace outdated applications. We can blame overselling by vendors and consultancies, eager to make more money by making the projects as complex and daunting as possible. But IT is a grown-up profession now, and managers must take a share of the responsibility too.
A classic example – a retail giant was moaning recently that it had not got as far ahead with data warehousing as it had planned because of, guess what, the millennium bug. But retailers were investing in data warehousing in the early 1990s, before anyone was starting to panic about Y2K. A company with greater foresight would have been able to finish both projects in the space of a decade.
The panic about small businesses is another example. Clearly they need more help from government groups and so on because they do not have IT departments or budgets for large consultancies. But, equally, most of them don’t have more than a few PCs, so how difficult can this be to fix?
If it were just the Y2K crisis, we might put the widespread panic down to some kind of millennium fever. But, in reality, it is just the latest and best excuse for widespread incompetence. The problems are well known. Companies waste large sums of money on the latest technology without bothering to find out whether it solves their business problem, and then are surprised when it does not achieve the hoped-for results. So the fatal cycle of over-enthusiasm for new technology, disillusionment, poor results, ostrich reactions and finally panic, continues.
We may blame businesses for not taking a more rational and mature attitude to IT, but consultancies have a large role to play here. However, while they have the experience and influence to help companies restructure their priorities and focus on their needs, they are increasingly being brought in at the wrong stage. Often they come in for planning, when the company is still in the throes of, perhaps misguided, enthusiasm. It is hard for a consultant to influence a client at this point, and many do not try hard enough – especially if the technology involves a lucrative project.
And, of course, they often arrive at the door at the panic stage, by which time they can only carry out damage limitation.
So the message here is that both users and consultancies need to work together more sensibly and consistently, and look carefully at the true needs of the business. And, remember, don’t use the millennium bug as an excuse for poor planning and decision making, because it won’t be with us for very much longer.
Caroline Gabriel is a group editor in VNU’s IT portfolio.
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