Just Desserts*

Just Desserts*

When it comes to IT, sometimes organizations are their own worst enemy.

"I'm so glad you've come," he told Ann Moffatt, a director with the Australian Computer Society Foundation, as they sat down to lunch. "I've been looking forward to this lunch all week because I know that you will know why I signed a cheque for $800,000-plus this week for a new computer."

"Actually," Moffatt said, "I don't know. Why don't you ask your IT people?"

"They won't tell me!" he railed.

"When else do you sign a cheque for that amount without knowing what it is for?" Moffatt chided.

"Never," he said, "but IT says I won't understand."

So do organizations get the IT they deserve?

Well. One year Moffatt sat on an advisory board with an IT director from one of the big four banks, an elderly chap who knew nothing about IT but had been given the position and title to "keep an eye on" those IT people. Lunching with Moffatt he enquired whether she knew anything about system "X", the bank's new system that had regularly been the subject of media and industry speculation. Moffatt replied that she did not know much more than she had read in the newspaper or heard around the industry but would love to hear more about it from him.

"Oh dear," he said. "That's where I get my information from. I know you get 'round the industry so I'd hoped you could tell me all about it."

"Why don't you ask your IT staff?" Moffatt asked.

He replied he had asked, but they would not tell him. Soon after that lunch, the system was abandoned, costing the bank millions of dollars.

So do organizations get the IT they deserve?

Years earlier, Moffatt was put in charge of all development and a maintenance staff of 60-plus for the Australian Stock Exchange while a group of consultants from one of Australia's then largest management consulting firms was developing the new automated trading system, SEATS. When Moffatt insisted on integration testing, concerned about issues surrounding the docket numbers that recorded each trade, the executive resisted fiercely, insisting the consultants knew what they were doing.

"I dug my heels in and system testing was done with much harrumphing from the execs because more discrepancies were found," she says. "I was told that I had delayed the system for six months.

"With system testing complete, I insisted on user testing. 'Was I mad?' I was asked. This was late 1987 and huge volumes of stocks were being traded. I'd already stopped the system from going live for six months. Did I think that brokers would test a computer system? Hadn't my staff tested properly? Again I dug my heels in . . . More errors found!

"Seven months later the system went live the day before the October crash. Trading on that day was the highest ever on stock exchanges around the world. I was very proud that our system in Australia was one of the only systems in the world to stay 'up' on that day," Moffatt says. "Of course after that I was a hero but a weaker IT exec might have given in to 'the management', and guess who would have got the blame?"

So do organizations indeed get the IT they deserve?

You betcha.

Phil Windley, a US-based expert in using IT to add value to business and author of the blog Phil Windley's Technometria (, has been using just these words as a slogan since he was CIO for Utah from 2001 to 2002.

Time and time again, he says, he has seen organizations large and small that were their own worst enemies when it came to IT. Some were short-sighted, some were led by business leaders who did not understand what IT could and could not do, some refused to use best practices and other proven methods. The list went on. "There were a lot of reasons, but the end result was an IT infrastructure that didn't meet the business needs of the organization. Usually they blamed the wrong things or just lived with the results believing they were inevitable," Windley says.

It is easy, even natural, to point the finger at the CIO when IT goes wrong, but if the top end of the company does not understand IT or give the IT folks full support, and if the users at the other end have unrealistic expectations, just how fair is it for the CIO to cop all the blame?

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