SNw 008 Is I.T. "Rocket Science"? -- REALLY? Created by James on 6/13/2013 2:12:33 PM
Continuing from the subject of where I.T. is going, this issue discusses a widely held myth that I.T. is beyond the comprehension of Business Executives
This issue examines the question of whether I.T. is "Rocket Science"? OR much more prosaic
this article is in response to a comment made by a business executive friend of mine
In the last issue I examined where I.T. was going and suggested that the future direction of Information Technology was about the response of people to the technology and not the technology.
I also suggested that there would be an increase in litigation both against board members and service providers and vendors for I.T. investment failure and that there would be an increase in Executive Custody as a consequence.
In this issue of StratNews I would like to discuss the widely held view that I.T. is not amenable to ready understanding by business executives and particularly, the view that I.T. is "Rocket Science".
In responding to this statement I will set out the basics of I.T. in a way that I hope will assist readers to take charge of I.T. effectively.
My objective is to remove the mystique of I.T. by using physical world metaphors that make the technology easier to understand and much easier to manage with authority and confidence.
Is I.T. Rocket Science?
I was recently chatting to a friend of mine who is the director of a major listed company in Johannesburg and who had been responsible for introducing me to his company in an advisory capacity.
I had been advising the company for over a year and commented that I was interested to know what the true value of my services was.
In response he commented that he had always viewed I.T. as "Rocket Science" and that I had assisted him to see that it was much more prosaic than that.
This conversation started me thinking -- I constantly encounter executives who commence meetings on the subject of I.T. with apologies for their lack of I.T. literacy and frequently with statements to the effect that they are not sure whether they are the correct people to speak to about I.T. in their organizations.
Given that such statements generally take place in interviews where I am conducting an investigation into some aspect of I.T. in the organization concerned I find them cause for concern.
Over the years, in response to such statements, I have done much work around developing simple, practical, physical world metaphors that help to reduce I.T. to a level that is amenable to pragmatic management by executives who do not have time to spend hours trying to understand the technology in order to manage investments that frequently run to millions of Rands.
The remainder of this article will endeavour to provide a concise summary of the critical issues.
Business Innovation with I.T. IS Possible
Recently I have encountered some comments that suggest that what I have to say on I.T. indicates that I am "anti-I.T.".
So much so that recently I authored an article for an organization that was blocked from publishing it by one of their major customers, a major I.T. company, on the grounds that they did not agree with my outlook on I.T.
So ... let me start by saying that I am firmly convinced that Information Technology can offer very substantial benefits to organizations IF used effectively in a strategically valuable way.
I am so convinced of this that I have spent the last nearly eighteen years of my life consulting with regard to I.T. and seeking to develop methods to ensure that organizations gain strategic and operational benefit from their I.T. investments.
Having said this, let me also state that I am firmly opposed to projects which destroy huge amounts of investment, projects which are illconceived and badly executed and projects that totally ignore the strategic needs of customer organizations as a consequence of mystical sales and other hype that implies that the technology on its own is capable of doing things that only people can do.
As an engineer, one of the hard lessons I learned after I decided to consult in the field of Information Technology is that change in people is much harder to bring about than change in concrete.
If a rock or piece of concrete is in the way, the solution is simple -- drill a hole in it, place some explosive in the hole, detonate it and remove the rubble.
If a person or group of people are subject to change they do not support, moving or removing them is much more complex, so much so that I concluded many years ago that psychology was MUCH harder than concrete. People who are resistant to change and even people who are open to change require guidance and leadership on a sustained basis and, at the end of the day, it is people who deliver the value or lack of value that any I.T. project delivers or fails to deliver.
I.T. Failure is at Epidemic Proportions
Despite the potential of the technology to assist organizations, 70% of I.T. projects fail TOTALLY.
A further 20% materially fail to meet management expectations.
"19 out of 20 E.R.P. implementations fail to deliver what was promised" (Financial Mail).
Despite huge investments in "Business Intelligence" software most companies are not making better decisions than five years ago (Gartner).
I have mentioned these statistics in previous newsletters and so will not elaborate here.
I discussed I.T. mythology in my last newsletter -- the tendency of people, including I.T. sales people, to ascribe mystical and human traits to I.T.
This includes the tendency to look to computers to solve people problems that people do not understand and have failed to solve by way of effective leadership and management.
In the sections that follow I will seek to set out briefly some counter thoughts to the thought that I.T. is Rocket Science, or mystical or even simply "human".
Computers are JUST Adding Machines
Did you know that everything a computer does is done by adding 0's and 1's -- a computer is only a binary adding machine or switch -- like a light switch, linked to devices like screens, keyboards, disc drives, etc that do things with streams of 0's and 1's in huge quantities very quickly.
Everything on your computer screen right now is a pattern of 0's and 1's -- a pattern that tells the electronics behind the computer screen which dots to switch on with which colour value.
Everything you do on your mouse or keyboard generates a stream of 0's and 1's which the computer interprets.
Everything that is stored on a digital disc, be it your computer hard disc drive, a digital music CD or a video DVD is a stream of huge numbers of 0's and 1's.
Everything that your computer does as you sit in front of it now. Everything that any computer does, is by processing a stream of 0's and 1's which tell the computer which switches to switch in which position so that the stream of 0's and 1's goes to the screen or the disc or the processor or so that the computer looks to input devices such as the keyboard for 0's and 1's.
In interpreting this stream of 0's and 1's the computer applies numerous electronic circuits that perform diverse tasks, always with 0's and 1's -- on or off, on or off, on or off -- a continuous stream of instructions that ultimately reduce to 0's and 1's.
A very simple language for a very stupid machine -- which is the consequence of immense human creativity and which uses the outputs of human creativity in numerous layers to get electric currents to perform arithmetic functions so rapidly that the computer appears to be super human and to have a life of its own IF you forget that it is only a very fast electronic abacus designed by humans to be used by humans and dependent on humans for input and interpretation of output and action that results in business outcomes.
The Composite Creative Result of Human Beings Just Like You
Everything that a computer does was conceived and programmed by a human being like you.
There is no super human power behind computers.
Yes they can be programmed (by human beings) to do wonderfully creative things, when used by other human beings, but they are just tools to be used by human beings.
We use the word "programme" or "program" in English to describe the sequence of events on a radio or television station, the sequence of instructions to a computer, a work "programme" and numerous other sequences of events. We buy a "programme" when we visit the circus or the theatre and when we visit a sports event. Yet somehow, "computer programmes" seem to be mentally dissociated with the other programmes that we understand and take for granted in other areas of our lives.
Human beings are amazingly resourceful and creative and this creativity has found expression in computers amongst many other things. However, I suggest to you that computer programmes are no more amazing than a complex piece of musical composition presented by dozens of musicians under the batton of a talented conductor based on a set of notation that, to me as a non-musical person, is far more complex than anything a computer can do.
The Fundamentals of Information Technology
So, what is information technology, REALLY?
Seven key points to consider:
1. Processors are just adding machines.
2. Databases are just like warehouses -- large quantities of information stored in systematic fashion and maintained by human beings -- some are orderly and some are not -- in the physical world it is easy to see if a warehouse is well operated, with a computer database this may require symptomatic diagnosis but the basic principles are the same.
3. Automation software like spreadsheets and word processors are tools that facilitate and automate mundane repetitive tasks to allow skilled users to function more creatively and concentrate on adding value -- the problem is that many users are not skilled enough in the tool to be able to focus on creative and value adding functions.
4. Networks function by sending packets like the postal "system" -- a destination address on the front, a return address on the back and something that some human being considers of value in the packet -- the entire Internet functions on this basis -- 95% psychology and 5% technology -- that is the basis of successful products on the Internet.
5. Graphics is a presentation and interpretation aid -- take a web page that you consider useful and valuable and imagine removing the text ... then imagine removing the graphics -- in most cases without the text you would have difficulty gaining value from the page. Sometimes the graphics speak for themselves but most of the time they are a support and enhancement for the text. Most of what most people do on the Internet involves text. The "Windows" operating system is primarily a text based system -- move your mouse over an icon on your desktop or check the Windows registry -- not a graphic in sight. Graphics are valuable as an adjunct, sometimes.
6. Validation codes are the primary way that computers gain "intelligent" insight into the business of the business -- without a Chart of Accounts your financial system and E.R.P. have no way of converting the contents of the database into a format that can be understood financially by human intellect and most charts of accounts are badly designed from a strategic decision support perspective -- which is why most organizations find it difficult or impossible to use their huge I.T. investments to support strategic decision making. There are numerous other validation codes that are required to enable your core business systems to function effectively.
7. People and business strategy determine the value delivered by computers -- looking to the technology to deliver value one looks past the super-computer sitting at the keyboard and screen who is responsible for the content of the 0's and 1's that are all that the computer knows about the business and all that the computer has to perform its "magic" on. It is people not computers who determine the value delivered by your multi-million Rand (or Dollar, or Yen, or ...) investment.
Conclusion -- Is I.T. Rocket Science -- REALLY?
I hope that the above discussion will assist you to recognize that information technology is NOT rocket science.
It is not mystical or super natural, it is not even a fraction as intelligent as the least schooled human being who enters data at the keyboard or clicks a mouse in response to some pattern of 0's and 1's generated in response to some other pattern of 0's and 1's generated by some other human being.
There is no doubt that there are amazing things that can be done using information technology, yet it requires the business genius of the people who have built the organization to effectively define the role that information technology should play in the organization and then to use the people in the organization to unlock the potential.
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