Our Journey Begins

As I expected, Dan showed up on Lombardi Time — fifteen minutes early. Anticipating his discipline that had been learned in the era of that great Green Bay Packers coach, I had arrived at 7:30 to be sure we had a booth. That way I would have a few minutes to revisit some of the things I wanted us to talk about. Dan spotted me when he came in, made his way past those waiting near the register, and slid onto the bench across from me.

After short greetings, we both ordered omelets, home fries, bagels, and coffee. The thing I like about diners is that in less than ten minutes we’d be adding ketchup and Tabasco and starting to put away the food. Breakfast is my favorite meal, and this morning I relished the opportunity to share the time with a friend.

Lois, our waitress, poured the coffee and left us. Having waited as long as I could before asking, I decided to set my mind at ease right then. “Dan, forgive me, but before we get started, I just gotta know. How come you’re working at a job that is so clearly not in your field? You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to, you know, but I’m really more than curious…” My voice just trailed off, reflecting how uncomfortable I felt asking that question, but Dan made it easy for me.

“Understand why you’d ask, but the answer is really simpler than anyone might expect. After a while I’ll tell you the whole story, but for now let’s just leave it that this: getting the boot at Weixx-Corp forced me to make some important discoveries about myself and I’m happier now than I’ve ever been in my life. Obviously, there are no unduly taxing pressures in my new field, and I satisfy some long-suppressed preferences for being out of doors… no coats and ties, minimal bureaucratic interferences. Stuff like that… Maybe we can touch on that some more later, but for now that sums it up, okay?”

“Whatever you say, Dan. If and when you’re ready to say more, I’ll be ready to listen.”

Dan simply nodded and then move onto the subject at hand. “Been thinking a lot about how to attack your problem since yesterday. You know there is a proven process that’s been around for a long time. Some people know it exists, but most of those don’t use it anymore. So I thought a little historical review might help put your issues into perspective and give us some guidance as we face the complexities of the so-called information age our world is plunging into.”

“Sounds good,” I replied, leaning forward to better concentrate as the noise of the morning regulars reached new levels.

“When I first came into this business more than thirty-five years ago — in what would be ancient times in the evolution of what was then called data processing — the people from IBM leased us those punched card accounting machines you mentioned earlier. Initially, they performed payroll and all of our accounting work, but we also used them for purchasing, inventory control, shipping, receiving and warehouse management. Our people were even trained to process production scheduling and costing using the same type of equipment. Later, when we needed more capacity and faster processing, we moved our applications to the growing number of increasingly more affordable computer systems. By today’s standards, we spent huge sums to lease those computer systems for the volumes of transactions involved, but we needed those capabilities to keep up with demands of the business, and paid the price.

“Though I like to use the term buy when talking about such decisions, hardly any of us bought equipment back then: everything was leased because machines were too expensive. If I tell you we evaluated each of those expenditures the same way we did any other investment, what is the obvious question you would expect we had to answer before approving such budget requests?” he asked.

“What is the expected return on investment?” I offered.

“Of course,” he acknowledged. “We made IBM and our own people prove the worth of those investments before and after the sale. I’ll tell you how that was done another time, but for now just know that we had to consider ROI. And, though I know people today say they look at ROI for particular purchases and projects, too often there is a major difference between their cost justificationprocesses and the ones we used. As I said, we can talk more on that later if you like.”

“Got it,” I said, making a mental note, not wanting to disrupt his flow.

“Because there were very few automated processes that could be readily duplicated for use from one business or organization to another, the total cost for each new application usually included substantial labor hours by skilled systems analysts, programmers and installation support personnel. Consequently, in those early days, very few small enterprises could afford to lease much less buy their own systems. The vast majority of professionals who were available to design, program, and install what were known as data processing systems worked for major equipment manufacturers like Burroughs, GE, IBM, NCR, RCA, and Univac. Likewise, training for those who wrote programs and those who operated and used the new systems was provided almost exclusively by each manufacturer.

“Even if convinced of the need to replace their bookkeeping machines and manual methods or an existing data processing system, most decision makers were very reluctant to underwrite the costs of designing and creating automated applications of their most vital functions. Measurable benefits had to be identified. The sum of the savings calculated for each function to be automated had to be much greater than the amortized cost before decision makers would purchase a new data processing system.

“Though some executives never took the time after the new system was operational to compare predicted benefits with reality, many did. In my case, it was actually the sales and systems people from IBM who first made it their business to give an accounting of results achieved in each installation, and that was usually done near the end of each year. They’d come with their managers and hold meetings with us and we’d all talk about how well we’d done together, identifying both the successes as well as the less than successful efforts since our last session. Then, we’d share our plans for new and different initiatives for the next and subsequent years. Finally, we’d jointly map out plans and assigned responsibilities for the coming year as well as for the longer term as best we could envision them.”

He was speaking in a confident, matter-of-fact way that served well our need to deal in straight talk as he continued. “Looking back on it now, it’s clear the old-time IBM people knew what they were doing, because even our most skeptical top execs came away with more confidence about how we were spending our budgets to benefit the business. I suspect it’s the loss of that accountability that’s causing part of your heartburn these days.”

Lois placed our breakfast platters in front of us about eight minutes after we’d ordered, according to the Dr. Pepper clock hanging over the entrance.

Dan pressed on like a man with a mission, alternating his words with his eating; I devoured my food and listened. “In the early seventies, technological advances in computer processing, storage media, printers, and a host of associated devices brought hardware prices down. Everything was getting a little easier to use, and we were getting smarter at using them. About that same time, it seemed every level of the American education system became involved in turning out increasing numbers of young people who could operate and program the wider variety of computers then available. Educators from K through 12, junior colleges and trades schools as well as throughout the ranks of colleges and universities — they all embraced the use of computers in their courses. The information explosion as some called it had begun. But, as we know today, that era heard only a whisper of what was to come.

“But, to keep pursuing my earlier theme, as the barriers of price and training were being lowered, the number of organizations of all sizes installing computers went up dramatically. Like the others, and partly from fear of losing ground to their competitors, many remote operations that had the authority to do so felt compelled to get a computer system of their own. As I’ve been suggesting, a growing number of those decisions were made without the same degree of understanding we might have required earlier.”

He looked at me — he expected a reaction, but instead saw my determination to hear him out, so he continued his historical review. “Because the equipment was also smaller and less sensitive to temperature, dust, and humidity, we began to decentralize our data processing, placing systems in warehouses to handle shipping and receiving, on the shop floor for scheduling and tracking production in plants — even in trailers on construction sites. We then assembled their results into our central computers at headquarters.

“Do you recall I said we were seeing many more new employees who were trained to program and operate systems?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said.

“Well, looking back on it all now, it’s clear we gradually turned over to those new whiz kids the responsibility for making critical decisions that rearranged the way we handled information and where we located the necessary computer equipment!” Dan was beginning to show growing displeasure with the memories he was dredging up. His jaw moved back and forth so firmly he was soon unconsciously grinding his teeth. “Most of those folks probably felt they were doing the right thing. But, unfortunately, their lack of practical business experience in such matters meant they had to rely mostly on theories put forth by their classroom instructors. As little as they may have understood about the practicalities involved in automating processes, it was much more than most of our managers of that day knew, so we were apparently quite glad to spend our energies on much more familiar problem areas of the business. As they say, the rest is history.”

I was not sure what Dan was trying to tell me just now and said so. “I’m sorry, but I can’t appreciate what you’re saying to me. I mean, I don’t know where you’re coming from when you talk about the rest.”

“Sorry,” he said, “but it really irritates and distresses me to trace through this whole thing. You can’t imagine how much money we’ve spent, how many twists and turns we’ve made over the years, and all in the name of progress. We’ve had some really bright, well-intentioned computer people in our organization and several have made real contributions to our success. But the great majority were just that: computer people. The main interest in life for most of them was, and still is, to work with technology — the latest and greatest, fastest and most innovative…the bleeding edge, it’s called — with little or no real understanding of how it feels to walk in the shoes of the people who depend on the information they provided.”

“Now don’t get me wrong,” he warned, “There is a real need in every organization for people who understand how to get the most from computer technologies. Obviously, there is also a vital role to be played by those who know how to design and write programs. That said, an essential, missing link in far too many organizations these days results from the failure of management to instill in the I/T people a real understanding of the functional needs, responsibilities and challenges of the non-technical employees who depend on I/T for the proper execution of their jobs.

“A second missing link exists from the failure of management to facilitate the development of a corresponding appreciation among non-I/T people for the capabilities of appropriately applied systems to meet their information needs. So in most companies, we have all sorts of computers, from PCs to mainframes, but far too few are really in sync with the needs of the workers who most need to use them!”

Dan was in his element now, and he could see I was eating it up. “So, as I said before,” he continued, “most of the problems you’re facing are just like those of your counterparts in most other companies today. And just like everybody else, you’re probably seriously looking at outsourcing your I/T. And why not? Seems like everybody else is doing it, right?”

He knew the answer before he asked it, but I understood why he was leading me through the discussion and went along with it by admitting, “Well, of course we’re considering moving some of our I/T outside to try getting better control over our costs. We’ve heard about some really exciting results at several major firms…” I trailed off.

By that time we had finished our food and were working on our third or fourth coffee warm-up. Having tied up the booth in Lois’ station for almost an hour, it was time to let someone else take it so she could continue making her daily tip income. Though I didn’t really want to interrupt our train of thought, I paid the check and we headed towards the Algonquin.

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