Millennium bug raises profile of IT department

When justifying the spend post-Y2K a number of benefits emerge, writes Julia Vowler

When justifying the spend post-Y2K a number of benefits emerge, writes Julia Vowler

The strongest steel is tempered in the fire. For IT directors, year 2000 has meant enduring two such furnaces: the first of getting Y2K projects done at all, the second, happening now, is standing by the need to have done them in the first place.

After two years of hard slog through code and kit, it must be tempting simply to tell the chorus of doubters and mockers to go take a jump. Yet the Y2K experience has taught IT directors that the only viable approach to take with the non-IT community, the board included, is persistent reasoned argument.

That was what got the Y2K budgets in the first place, and that is what has to be done to silence the mockers. The cost of covering risk is never free - insurance premiums are obviously a waste of money until the factory burns down.

Similarly, it is a truism that half the marketing budget is wasted - but which half? Ditto for Y2K bug spends, suggests Colin Palmer, programme director for Impact.

But, irrespective of the petty wrangling over whether the bug was a real threat, one indisputable effect of Y2K has been to push the IT department right to the top of the agenda as far as business criticality is concerned.

"It made people aware of the level of dependence on IT and how it was cross-organisational," says Palmer.

"Your board probably has a better understanding of how IT underpins the business," agrees the National Computing Centre.

Reciprocally, Y2K also gave IT directors an excellent opportunity for doing the same, getting carte blanche to roam around the organisation, assessing just how well IT is already exploited, and how much better it could be. This is useful knowledge for times ahead, believes Philip Virgo of the Institute for the Management of Information Systems.

With any luck, that mutual awareness of the criticality of IT should feed forward positively into the electronic commerce initiatives.

One key lesson that should be applied to e-commerce immediately, says Virgo, is that variety is unsustainable. PC devolution led to such a dog's dinner on the desktops that only wholesale standardised replacement was an acceptable Y2K "fix". Do not, urges Virgo, allow a rash of skunk-work e-commerce initiatives to recreate the same unstandardised, non-robust Web platforms.

Virgo suggests that, as well as insisting on standardised e-commerce, ITdirectors should also insist on industrial-strength e-commerce programmes.

IT departments fresh from conducting the industry's largest project, Y2K, have just had some very good training in large-scale, business-critical project management. They should now use the experience for the corporate e-commerce programme, and do it properly, not as some glitzy, paper-thin Web site.

Virgo also points to another sobering Y2K lesson - the IT department's dependence on its IT suppliers. Like it or not, he reminds, IT suppliers are now so powerful that users have only two choices.

"They can get into bed with an outsourcer or band together in user groups," says Virgo. "Individual IT directors are no longer in a good position to get value for money from suppliers."

Y2K has already created a climate of co-operation and "we're all in this together" among IT directors.

"Many turned to user groups to benefit from sharing experiences with their peers - such groups and forums will be useful for other issues," says the NCC panel.

However, quite a few quit, believing that enough is enough.

"Quite a sizeable number regarded Y2K as an exit project," says Palmer, putting the figure, very tentatively, at anything between 20% and 40%.

Virgo agrees. "Y2K accelerated the churn in IT directors - an awful lot left," he says.

For those that stayed, or the incoming replacements, the IT department that goes into the new century is wiser, tougher and cleaner.

"A major benefit has been the rebuilding of IT infrastructures, plus softer process benefits, such as understanding continuity planning better," says Palmer.

"As a by-product of the Y2K audit, IT directors should now have a comprehensive inventory of current systems," says the NCC panel. "This information can be used to better manage existing resources and supplier relationships."

If there is any motto appropriate to the Y2K impact, it is the one about ill winds. Y2K was undoubtedly an ill wind, but there are more benefits to be wrung out of it than mere survival. Though that is good too, as the mockers should perhaps remember.

What has the millennium bug done for you?

  • It has underlined the benefits of using well-reasoned, rational argument when communicating with the business at large, and of using language it can understand
  • It has made the business and the board aware that yours is a mission-critical function, and one that underpins the whole enterprise
  • It has empowered you to carry out a pan-organisational stocktake, allowing you to discern what is in use, where and to what end
  • It has honed your business-critical project management skills, enabling you better to tackle large-scale e-commerce projects
  • It has opened your eyes to your dependence on your IT suppliers and fostered a climate of end-user co-operation
  • It has forced you to come to terms with the concept of continuity planning

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