Ignorance, Inefficiency and IT

Originally published in Crème de la Crème, January 2010

Nick Caine

IT Departments got used to ruling the roost, and trusting business managers got used to letting them. When projects were processed-size this worked well, but once the project becomes enterprise-sized, the wrong people are effectively in charge. It is time for business managers to manage their IT.

The corporate world is starting to understand that its internal Information Technology departments can be a threat to its success, even its survival.

Indeed, IT departments are sometimes accused of employing both the doctrine of maximum inefficiency and the tactics of exploitation of ignorance to ensure their own survival.

How can the symbiotic relationship between business and IT have become so starkly dysfunctional?

Once upon a time, computers were simply machines that speeded-up elements of what were otherwise established manual processes, and the business side of things was happy to leave the detail to the programmers. What mattered was the performance and price of the system that slotted into the overall scheme of things. You wanted a quick way to find a client’s balance when he telephones? Buy a relational database and put the numbers in. Problem solved.

So suHow to solve any IT Problemccessful were such initiatives that they exposed other processes as slow and inefficient, and the reign of the IT department began.

Highly-educated and specialised practitioners in programming departments became used to guiding and advising their business counterparts through the complex, difficult and expensive decisions required to get an automation project done. Over time this guidance turned into a form of arrogance – “we know better so we’ll tell them what to do” – and the hapless business manager, in ignorance, went with the flow. And because the outcome was satisfactory from a business perspective there were few complaints.

With benign and wise IT departments, and common-sense business leadership, and modest projects, this practice usually worked out fine. Once things started getting bigger, and with IT personnel becoming necessarily more specialised, the “we know best” approach, with its sub-text of “the business can’t be trusted”, necessarily led to failure after costly failure.

The signs were there from the earliest days however. In the UK for instance there were several major disasters in the 70s, PAYE for the Inland Revenue being one example. In the 80s and 90s, the London Stock Market spent years trying to develop Crest, a paperless settlement system, before throwing everything away and starting again. Insiders blamed the failure on the project structure, (committees dominated by the big clearing banks with their own agendas) and on the amount of change tolerated through the project’s life. Much more recently the spectacular falling-out between several major government agencies – the Inland Revenue, the Child Support Agency and the Prison Service with their IT contractors EDS has re-focussed attention on the way major IT projects are defined and built. The National Health Service has spent GBP13bn, yes, billion, with ISoft, and have received a system that is so bad that no-one will use it.


The old guard of IT professionals, people first employed in the 70s, are still running the shop in the big organisations. These are hard-bitten corporate warriors who have fought their way up through the ranks, and they know how to handle the business people who employ them. In return they have been rewarded with fawning trust and have been largely immune from the periodic purges on costs which other parts of the organisation have been subject to.

In-house IT departments cannot be compared to the competition – there isn’t any. And when, goaded, the business has lashed out and replaced the whole shebang with an external contractor, there is still no easy way to compare one candidate firm with another, except on cost. As a result, outsourced IT contracts are too often given to the under-bidder who then under-delivers to make the contract profitable.

The root cause is ignorance, fostered by the IT staff whose interests it serves. A business manager who has little knowledge of the realities of computing has real difficulties describing the problem and the solution required.

This doesn’t excuse the abdication of responsibility by the business whose business it should now be to re-state the rules of engagement.

Ignorance, Inefficiency and IT as published in PDF form