Lessons from a master builder

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One of the problems with the information technology industry today is the unfortunate lack of inspiring heroes, as Digital Business has been pointing out recently.

The reason has much to do with how IT has been produced over the past half-century or so. The increasing complexity of hardware and software over that period means it is almost impossible for them to be the product of one talented individual. It is much more likely to be the product of a large organisation employing thousands of people.

The computing industry today is not short of visionaries, but I doubt even they would claim to be heroic role models. There have been pioneers with some heroic qualities, such as Charles Babbage (1791-1871), who in effect invented the digital computer when he designed his Analytical Engine in 1834.

But his personal stubbornness and inflexibility, combined with problems with winning funding and even fundamental technical problems – not least the absence of a precision engineering industry that could produce the thousands of perfectly standardised cogwheel components Babbage had specified – meant he went to his grave having failed to build the machine of his dreams.

Today, when IT is among the most potent weapons any organisation can possess in its bid for efficiency, effectiveness and competitive supremacy, the IT industry is in more need of heroic role models than ever – because it needs real inspiration if it is to get the most out of today’s third-generation IT systems.

Instead of merely automating processes that were formerly carried out manually, third-generation IT systems have created the possibility of the IT itself being used to create entirely new processes and applications. Third-generation IT is not just a facilitator; it is a creator.

However, industry research backed by anecdotal evidence suggests that at least 70 per cent of projects involving the implementation of third-generation systems run into problems and end up delivering fewer benefits than expected.

Too many initiatives become a sad compromise that merely deliver a little more automation. It is a bit like investing in a private jet and using it to make trips to the shops.

So what can be done?

By way of answering this question, consider the following remarks about the challenges of bringing a big complicated project home satisfactorily.

“The problem is the same here as in other spheres of human activity. A wealth of new knowledge, new materials, new processes have so widened the field of possibilities, that it cannot be adequately surveyed by a single mind. Corresponding to this increase of means, there are increased or entirely new requirements to be satisfied. Our needs increase with the means. Standards are raised, new services introduced.

“This produces the specialist or expert, and the usual problem arises: How to create the organisation, the ‘composite mind’, so to speak, which can achieve a well-balanced synthesis from the wealth of available detail. This is, I suppose, one of the essential problems of our time.”

These words were spoken in 1941 by a Dane called Ove Arup, who was born in 1895 and whose achievements as a structural engineer included making the Sydney Opera House a workable project.

Ove Arup is not, at first sight, an obvious candidate for being a role model for the IT industry. Today, his structural engineering consultancy is a multi-national that has built many of the most ambitious civil engineering projects of recent years: including the Öresund Bridge linking Denmark and Sweden which took four years to build.

Arup himself, however, was an iconoclastic, artistic, often quite eccentric man, who was as interested in philosophy, chess and literature as he was in buildings.

In its early years Arup’s consultancy (like many of the great computer companies that followed) lived a hand-to-mouth existence. Arup himself could be abrupt with people, and had a private income that sometimes irritated his employees.

But most people who met him agreed that when it came to structural engineering he was a genius; not only because of his appreciation of building materials but also his profound insight into the need for practical, creative and generous collaboration when working on big projects.

Any analysis of the kind of challenges Arup faced reveals profound similarities with the kind of problems facing those undertaking ambitious third-generation IT implementations today.

For example, the difficulty of finding one person or team to get a system working properly is often exacerbated by the competing needs and demands of different stakeholders, all of whom tend to see the implementation solely in terms of their own needs. Arup solved such problems by organising – and even inspiring – collaboration.

His background freed him from the constraints of rigid hierarchies and job demarcations and he promoted a more collaborative approach between client, architect, engineer and builder. He recognised that the complexity and diversity of technologies meant that no single person could expect to control all aspects of a project.

Arup died in 1988 and the lessons from his experience translate readily to today’s highly complex technology projects.

What he teaches the IT world of today is that real collaboration between stakeholders, technologists and everyone else involved, is the only way for a complex, demanding and ambitious IT project to work. He teaches us of the need to apply a high-quality “glue” to hold together all the elements of a project.

That glue will be a project manager or consultancy that understands the business needs behind the implementation.

Arup would doubtless also understand that today’s IT industry has matured and that clients are no longer prepared to pay premium rates for the nuts and bolts of programming software. They know they can buy it from software houses, such as ones located in India, that give fast turnrounds and low prices.

But similarly, clients know that what cannot be bought from software houses is the knowledge, skill and inspiration to put together the building blocks to make the project work. Doing this requires a flair not only in technical areas but also in understanding business, practical issues and people.

By pioneering new ways for construction industry professionals to collaborate, Ove Arup was able to make extremely ambitious projects work. He was a visionary whose work and example brings new hope to IT professionals that big dreams can, if properly managed, be turned into glorious realities.

Peter McAllister (peter.mcallister@charteris.com) is a consultant with business and IT consultancy Charteris (www.charteris.com)

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