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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

WHY WE NO LONGER THINK 'BIG'

Starting with the MIS movement (Management Information Systems) of the 1960's, companies invented major enterprise-wide systems that handled everything from manufacturing to customer service, to accounting and beyond. These were mammoth systems that were designed and built by systems analysts working in conjunction with programmers. The systems were not exactly glamorous by today's technological standards, but they worked. Over the next two decades the stature of programmers rapidly grew and system analysts declined. So much so, by the 1990's the analysts were almost extinct. This greatly affected the ability of companies to build and maintain major systems as evidenced by the numerous development disasters during that period. It seemed every field was affected, and we read about major system snafus in banking, transportation, insurance, health care, manufacturing, etc.
By the 21st century, these system disasters had become so prevalent that companies were convinced major systems development projects were an impossibility, that they plain and simply cannot be done in this day and age. This is like admitting we no longer know how to build bridges, skyscrapers, ships, or aircraft; not just because of prohibitive development costs, but because people no longer knew the methodology for building such an object. After all, the systems analysts had all been turned out to pasture. Consequently, the computer industry was content to build small things, such as "apps", which led to the current "agile" campaign of developing programs within a 30, 60 or 90 day time frame. Big deal. The fact remains, the information systems of the United States have been rotting and rusting as fast as the country's infrastructure thereby allowing our competitors to leapfrog the United States in several key areas. For example, America's banking systems are shamefully behind those in Europe and Asia.
The sad reality though is that systems design is not as complicated and difficult as people portray it. True, a lot of work is involved, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to design a system, just a person who is disciplined in the science of systems which, remarkably, is not too dissimilar to an architect or engineer. In fact, when I teach courses in systems I draw upon such analogies heavily and argue the design and development of an information systems is not unlike engineering and building any other object, be it a bridge, a skyscraper, a ship, etc.
The design of major systems need not be a complicated process couched in a cryptic vocabulary using seemingly esoteric techniques. While the state of the art in programming has undergone considerable changes over the last half century, little progress has been made in the area of systems which has stagnated due to the lack of standards and the heavy emphasis on programming.
Only now are companies reluctantly starting to realize the vital role systems analysis plays, not programming. Some of the symptoms include: systems lack integration (e.g., one system doesn't effectively communicate with others thereby causing redundant data, or worse, information incompatibilities), redundant work effort, disjointed work flows, and considerable time and money lost rewriting systems,
System design is not a dirty little secret, but rather an open and well documented set of governing principles beginning with a simple concept: "A system is a product that can be engineered and manufactured like any other product."
This mindset of thinking smaller, not bigger, is infecting other aspects of business and our society in general. For example, long rage planning is no longer thought of in terms of years, but in increments of 30, 60 or 90 day increments instead. Our foreign competitors do not think this way. When you consider the major construction projects in Asia or the manufacturing juggernaut in Europe, you realize they are not limited by 30, 60, or 90 day time frames. It is no small wonder that the United States has slipped to become the third largest exporter in the world, with China now at #1 and Germany #2. It also explains why we are dropping out of the space race.
Other countries have no trouble thinking big. In the United States though, we're scared to death of it.
Keep the Faith!
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Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M. Bryce & Associates (MBA) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at timb001@phmainstreet.com
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