The need to be serious about restoring the image (and professionalism) of ICT

Last year the spend on big IT systems in the UK dropped by over 5%, more in the private sector, over 8 – 9 % in financial services, manufacturing, mining and construction. More ICT staff (30%) had to accept pay cuts than the national average (27%). Local Authorities had to cut 10% of IT staff and 11% more are expected to follow this year. Now the cuts have reached Whitehall and the Quangos. No wonder BCS has a cadre of luddites who hark back to the halcyon days of 30 years ago when they were coming up to their Royal Charter. About then I did a favour for one of my wife’s cousins. I agreed to speak to her local Women’s Institute on new technology and the jobs of the future. Luckily I asked for overhead projector and did some slides. I found myself in the Warminster Leisure Centre, speaking to well over 400, including teachers, careers advisors, local business and councillors. Today it would be a Church Hall, if I, or anyone else, were to be invited at all.

Now is not the time to analyse why it all went wrong.

The first question is “What do those in the ICT industry, users as well as suppliers, professionals as well as employers, have to do to rescue their image it position alongside that of used car salesmen, journalists and politicians?”          

The first answer is perhaps the hardest: to accept reality and listen to the users.

Stop arguing that they are wrong and do not understand the complexity. Stop patronising them with explanations that swing between the condescendly simplistic and complex gobbleygook. It will be hard to change the habits of a life-time – but it has to be done.    

The second, is nearly as hard: to listen to what customers wnat to pay for.

Stop thinking that because their requests are often incoherent we should sell them complex systems that can do everything they might ever want. Those days are gone. We have to revert to first principles – as per the original NCC “Basic Training in Systems Analysis”, to work with them to find out how they currently do their jobs and how technology might be able to help them do better – and then deliver “solutions” that can evolve over time, as their needs change and they discover for themselves what more the technology can help them do.

The third is not much easier: to co-operate in ongoing continuous professional development, not just first entry education and training, at all levels (from customer support techicians to top flight reserchers)

We cannot successfully change the image until we have changed the reality. I remember many discussions about the need for a Soap Opera to elp us improve our image. We got “The IT Crowd” now into its fifth series. Some of the BCS rebels remind me of the cast – but so too do many others in the industry.

The fourth – there is no fourth. As a programme manager I was taught that successful programmes have no more than six objectives – and only the top three count.

I said earlier that now is not the time to analyse why it was went wrong – but we do need at least some insight as to why we got it so horribly wrong. I think it is largely because we thought we were so clever and started revelling in complex solution for their own sake. I remember producing a diagram of how the systems of a Regional Water Authority would fit together, for use in top level presentations. Before the techies could start commenting on the detail my boss’s secretary said “It looks like a demented spiders web”.

The penny dropped. It was too complicated to ever work – although today the techies would say, “No problem, Cloud Computing” – or some other fashioable nostrum – with as little real insight as they had them. We did use the diagram – to say why we did not recommend an integrated approach (as was fashionable even then) but industry co-operation on modular, incremental solution with inter-operability standards  – because any other approach was far too difficult and vulnerable. The report, and its reasoning, was a pleasant surprise to thsoe at teh top of the industry, albeit condemned as “pedestrian” by our competitors. We got over 80% market share for the next couple of years, in open competition. Show what happens when you listen to the customers – and to the boss’s secretary. 

That leads me to the second question: Is the situation so bad that the rival industry players, professional bodies, trade associations and other interest groups, let alone individual suppliers, are willing to work together, including with current and former users?

At the political level PITCOM, ApComms and EURIM are working together to provide a common briefing programme for the new intake of MPs on the issues they will need to address. For that to succeed we need a similar coming together on the industry side. The various EURIM working groups are now building a promising portfolio of joint projects, some of them are covered in the latest newsletter but this is more focussed on progress with the briefing programme. There is more in the working group sections of the EURIM website .

If you are serious about working with your peers to improve your image and bring forward a new round of investment in ICT to help meet the needs of society (and reward your shareholders for their patience), rather than to impress them with your cleverness, do come and join us – and perhaps offer to help lead.