NCC: 40 years on - towards a new age of innovation

As the National Computing Centre celebrates its 40th anniversary, chief executive Michael Gough sees innovation management bringing deeper integration of human and digital interaction. John Riley reports

As the National Computing Centre celebrates its 40th anniversary, chief executive Michael Gough sees innovation management bringing deeper integration of human and digital interaction. John Riley reports

The National Computing Centre, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this Saturday (10 June), is well positioned to be the hub of the future convergence between IT and broadcasting, says its group chief executive Michael Gough.

The NCC’s mission to be a centre of information and expertise on the implications and exploitation of technology could easily be applied to a wider convergence, says Gough.

“We are already beginning to resemble a broadcast environment rather than a traditional computing model. We are not many years from a full-blown convergence of every form of information and content in response to queries in real time over the internet,” he says.

Gough believes the NCC, with its proximity in Manchester to the BBC’s regional headquarters and Manchester University, should be at the forefront of this convergence. “Manchester is set to be the home of digital industries in the converged world,” he says.

Gough sees the NCC as a distributor to chief information officers of advice and content for the knowledge economy. “We are very interested in supporting the emergence of a new breed of people who can handle content creation, management and delivery, together with the IT skills for making these services available,” he says.

According to Gough, the next major infrastructure shift for IT will be innovation management, integrating human and digital interaction, and he intends the NCC to play a key role in these developments.

“The 1960s developed structured programming; the 1970s, structured design; the 1980s, structured analysis; the 1990s, project management; and the 2000s, service management. Innovation management is next.”

Gough envisages a methodology for structured IT management processes to incorporate human interaction.

“You can only get creativity from human networks. So little meaning is carried over the internet. Some 80% of the way you communicate is non-verbal. Human networks are the source of innovation,” he says.

Gough is also committed to helping CIOs establish IT as the recognised heart of businesses by 2010. “In some sectors, such as finance, retail and distribution, is it already there,” he says. 

“The more businesses become dependent on IT, the more they appoint people who understand IT. Therefore it is not a question of getting the chief executive to turn their head to IT, but of getting boards to recognise that they have to appoint people who are savvy about IT.

“There will always be a requirement for business operations directors to have a healthy understanding of IT,” he says.

Gough predicts a technology renaissance in the near future. “I see something of a swing in interest in technology over the next three years,” he says. “We will see the emergence of highly skilled architects and engineers because the complexity of the world is increasing. There is a real need for capacity planning, and technical migration planning skills.

“By focusing on management, project, process and business skills, some people say that technology doesn’t matter – but it does matter.”

The rise of the NCC

The NCC was forged from the “white heat” vision of a technology revolution whipped up by Harold Wilson’s Labour government in the 1960s.

Originally a government quango, it was set up in June 1966 as an impartial computing resource to promote the effective use and understanding of computers in every field of national and commercial activity.

From the outset, it has been a user-oriented membership body, and a strong continuity of focus underlies its past and current activities.

The NCC has broken new ground for IT users and suppliers through its involvement in areas such as interoperability, IT process innovation, training and education, regulation, research, testing, accreditation and administration of government IT schemes.

For its first 20 years the NCC was a not-for-profit organisation, hired by the government to administer various national IT schemes.

As public funding dried up, the NCC survived thanks to Filetab, a ground-breaking piece of interoperable report generating software it developed for mainframes. Filetab’s success underpinned the NCC’s finances as successive governments cut back its funding.

Enabling interoperability is still important to the NCC today. It is the sole certification and accreditation body for all E-Government Interoperability Framework practitioners. Adherence to the framework is mandatory for all systems used to deliver public services electronically.

The NCC took an early lead in pushing for better software standards, documentation and management processes. In the 1980s it developed SSADM (Structured Systems Analysis and Design Methodology) which was subsequently mandated for government computing.

It has since contributed to the project management and service management methodologies that developed into the Prince and IT Infrastructure Library guidelines.

Testing and validation became a mainstay of the NCC, especially in the 1980s, when it launched testing facilities for the OSI seven-layer communications standards, as well as for Cobol and Fortran. In 1985 it won a US Department of Defense contract to validate the Ada programming language. 

That heritage remains alive with the NCC’s open source and Microsoft/Dell evaluation suites, which help local government agencies to compare the technologies.

Such activity could not be maintained while the organisation was run on a not-for-profit basis, and in the mid 1980s, after suffering its first loss, the NCC decided to become a profit-generating organisation.

Revenue from software and services, particularly from escrow, testing and validation tools, as well as training, grew steadily during the 1990s. This culminated in a management buy-out of the organisation’s software and services activity in 1999, which became the NCC Group.

The remaining membership organisation retained the name National Computing Centre and focused on providing services to its 1,400 corporate members.

Fuelled by the cash from the split, Gough, who took over as NCC chief executive in 2000, embarked on a series of acquisitions of user organisations.

These included Certus, which brought in a leadership programme; the blue-chip user organisation CIO-Connect; the Institute of IT Training, which oversees the IT trainers; and the Impact Programme, which facilitates business/IT understanding.

“Our role is unique, to be a lifelong partner for members at each stage in their careers,” said Gough.

The ProfIT alliance, launched last month to create a formal competency framework for IT professionalism in the UK, fits well the NCC’s mission to help UK organisations contribute to the economy through the effective use of IT.

“The ProfIT programme is a fantastic opportunity to make a difference,” said Gough. “It will be a tragedy for the country if we don’t succeed.”

A brief history of the NCC

1966 Prime minister Harold Wilson launches the National Computing Centre in Manchester to promote understanding and effective use of IT

1967 Develops systems analysis training programme which develops into government-mandated methods SDM and SSADM

1969 Develops Filetab mainframe interoperability software

1976 Launches Threshold Scheme to provide on-the-job IT training for school leavers

1983 Establishes software escrow service

1986 Sets up Ada validation centre for the US Department of Defense

1987 Publishes SSADM reference manual

1990 Launches Impact Programme to promote IT management to senior staff – the programme is acquired by professional services firm KPMG in 1992.

1995 Develops PC driving test, which later becomes the European computer driving licence. The scheme is now accredited by the British Computer Society

1999 Management buys out of software consultancy and services operations and adopts the name “NCC Group”. It floats as a plc in 2004. NCC continues as membership-focused organisation

2002-2004 NCC buys Certus, Institute of IT Training, and blue-chip IT user organisation CIO-Connect

2004 Rebrands membership services under the Principia banner

2004 Wins Office of Government Commerce contract to accredit all E-Government Interoperability Framework practitioners

2005 Re-acquires Impact Programme

2006 Joins with the BCS, Intellect and E-Skills UK to form ProfIT Alliance to promote IT professionalism in the UK.



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