LEO: Office automation is still going strong

Seventy years ago Lyons & Co ran the world’s first business computer program, marking the start of business automation. This is a theme of computing that is still very relevant today.

The first program was Lyons’ Bakery Valuations. It was split into three parts and took three days to run the whole thing, starting on 28th November 1951 and finishing on 30th. This program valued the Cadby Hall bakeries’ output and sales. It was programmed using machine code. Punched paper tape and punched cards were used to feed the program into the LEO computer. Output was sent to teleprinters and punched cards.

Speaking on the YouTube documentary commemorating the first run of this program, Chris Monk, leading advisor at the Centre for Computing History, said: “For me the legacy of LEO is it’s like a starting pistol. It started the notion that business could use a computer.”

LEO is an acronym for the Lyons Electronic Office and that is exactly what the company wanted it to do. Lyons had an army of clerical staff whose job involved calculating the stock needed across all the tea rooms Lyons operated. LEO was inspired by the question of whether this manual accounting task could be speeded up using a machine. As Monk points out on the YouTube documentary, Lyons had key staff like John Simmons and John Pinkerton, who led the engineering team behind LEO and others who were very much into systems design and understood the business from a systems perspective.

Time to think differently

What LEO showed is that a business can not only use a computer, but using a computer has measurable business benefits. Just as in the post-war era when Lyons was at its height, today business leaders are facing a post-Covid reality. Old business models do not work. The effects of the global Covid-19 crisis are evident in this year’s TechTarget/Computer Weekly IT Priorities survey.

In the past IT chiefs were asked to do more with less. But this year, budgets are going up, or in the worst case, staying the same as last year. There has never been a better time to be an IT leader. Just as with the pioneering developers behind the software that LEO ran, IT chiefs have a golden opportunity to showcase the combination of their business acumen and technology leadership to deliver genuinely disruptive innovations.

The time to dump the rule book is long overdue. Forget legacy software, hardware and contracts. Think Different” was a slogan Apple adopted in the early 1990s. For CIOs and senior IT leadership, it’s as relevant today as it was then.

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