The Dark Side of the Moon: Two Questions for IT

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If you are of the same generation as myself, then you probably think this is an article about Pink Floyd - sorry, it's not. It is, in fact, the title of a book I read recently, which investigates what it cost to put a man on the moon. Now I happen to be related to Neil Armstrong (we are both descended from the same notorious Scottish cattle thief - please see this for details), and this year was the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, so the book was of great interest to me.

The cost of putting my relation on the moon was $35 billion, and the question which the book raises is the very valid one: Was it worth it?

In my opinion, and the book's, the answer is no.

This does not mean that I think the whole space programme is a waste of time and money, I happen to think the unmanned space programme has been extremely beneficial. Just think of some of the information or services, which we take for granted nowadays - the first communications satellite was launched in 1958, the first TV satellite in 1962, the first weather satellite on 1st April 1960 and the first navigation satellite 12 days later. However, when I challenge people to tell me what the manned space programme brought us, I get answers like:

•    We (the US) had to prove our superiority to the Russians and it raised morale throughout the country. I agree with the latter, not the former (as that way of thinking tends to lead to conflict or war), and why does the US now want to go to Mars - what will that bring?

•    Teflon - untrue,  PTFE was accidentally invented in 1938, patented in 1941, and Teflon was trademarked in1944

•    Velcro  - untrue, invented by a Swiss engineer in 1941 by looking at the hooks on the burdock (arctium lappa) plant. Velcro is actually short for velours crochet, which means velvet hook.

•    The upside-down biro. You don't actually need an upside-down biro in space, as there is no gravity. There is a great story that the Russians saved millions by using pencils, but I don't believe this is true as broken bits of pencil / pencil shavings floating round in a spaceship would be liable to get into all sorts of places they shouldn't and could lead to a plethora of problems.

And this for me raises the fundamental questions, which have to be asked at the beginning of any project, especially in these times of limited financial resource:

•    Why are we doing this?

•    What is it worth?

If these questions cannot be answered, then IMHO the whole project should be shelved.

Just because something is technically possible, does not in any way mean that it is justified from a business point of view. There is, of course, a counter argument that this will stifle innovation and creativity and that sometimes the great ideas come out of something that looks like it is a total waste of time at the outset. True, and if possible a budget should be set aside for blue-sky thinking and experimentation, but my point is that investing huge quantities of money in something with no justification is a luxury, which we currently cannot afford.

Hence, I would like to see the same principles applied to IT projects. Every project should be presented in business terms, not in some boring technical jargon, which no-one understands and which no-one cares about. For this to happen, IT strategy and business strategy need to be joined at the hip. I have seen, far too often, the IT department which decides what its strategy should be and presents it to the business as a fait accompli; I see IT reporting into a CFO, who can only see the bottom line and nothing beyond, and I see too many businesses, which decide a business strategy, don't bother to tell IT what it is and then complain that IT doesn't deliver what they wanted.

What the current financial crisis has brought home for me, and I hope for lots of others, is the painful truth that you can't have everything today. Good stuff costs hard work and money, and if you haven't got enough money then you need to prioritise your requirements. Too many people say "I need", when they really mean "I want" or "I would like".

The same thing applies to IT. As a bedrock, I require sound business policies and a strategy that lays out the requirements and the priorities. If I don't have that, then I have a system that will collapse under pressure.
It is very easy to run things efficiently in IT - there are loads of tools for people to play with and tune stuff for hours - all of which is a total waste of time and money if they are working on the wrong thing.

The first step is to be effective. Then you run what matters efficiently.

In today's (and any) economic climate it is imperative that IT delivers what the business needs, and this can only be achieved with an open dialogue between the business and IT, where the two parties are equals, explain what they truly need, how much it will cost and what it is worth.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Armstrong published on October 31, 2009 1:27 AM.

Survey Says: ISO, ITIL and COBIT Triple Play Fosters Optimal Security was the previous entry in this blog.

What, No BSM? Gartner's Top 10 Strategic Technologies for 2010 is the next entry in this blog.

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