Computers and people

Here’s an excerpt from an interesting editorial in this week’s Economist: | Computers and government (subscription required). Although it’s really commenting on IT projects in government, I think the same points are relevant to all organizations. In fact, it shouldn’t be titled "Computers and government" but "Computers and people".

Most private-sector bosses - especially since the bursting of the dot-com bubble - hope for nothing more than a return on their investment through lower costs and some improvement in competitiveness. But politicians (vide Mr Blair), desperate to find quick fixes and unencumbered with any understanding of what technology can and can’t do, often expect miracles. And one of the things that technology can’t do is to alter people’s attitudes towards change. "Change management" is never easy, but in the public sector it is especially hard because there is too little competitive pressure pushing it, and there are too many powerful unions holding it back. The commonest reason for IT failures is that custom-made systems are built to fit existing ways of working. Such systems, which consultants are only too happy to create, are expensive, deliver only marginal benefits and are inherently likely to go wrong.

So how can civil servants avoid disaster? First, they should regard installing new software as an opportunity to re-engineer the way they work in the light of both the Internet and how they want to operate for the next 20 years. Consultants cannot make those decisions for them. The new business processes must also fit unmodified software, not the other way round: the more modifications to the software, the greater the risk. Second, they should beware of incomplete automation: if one area of operations still depends on hand-written forms, little will be gained. To this end, they must buy business applications that have been engineered from the outset to work together. These may not individually be the "best of breed" that consultants often recommend, but they are more likely to be properly integrated - think of Microsoft Office. Finally, IT systems should provide managers with vital information; most fail to because data are fragmented and hard to find. With an Internet-based system, important information can be kept in one place, and managers can get at it when they need it.