In the first of a series of blogs, Toby Powell shares his thoughts on the development of IT, and how as an industry we could be further ahead if we had just thought a little bit more about how we look at the costs involved.
Charles Babbage, born in 1791, was the pre-eminent polymath of his time and is credited with originating the concept of the programmable computer. He started work on his “Difference Engine” in 1822, unfortunately it was never finished and it was not until 120 years after his death that a replica was built. The replica, along with parts of the original that were completed, is in the science museum in London.
His engine was mechanical, weighed 13,600 KG with 25,000 parts and was 2.4 metres tall. Modern IT is far removed from the mechanical marvel that Babbage envisaged but his exploration in computing has some interesting parallels with the challenges of today.
Had Babbage completed his engine in the 1800’s the world may have been very different, that it is not is in part because his business planning was as weak as his technical genius was strong.
Like many IT projects today led by a technical “vision” the business of raising the funds, managing costs and ensuring a return on investment took second place. Babbage, quite understandably, underestimated the complexity of the task and the time it would take to complete. Even though his original project was well funded it foundered and future attempts to restart the build failed to gain the confidence of investors and so took 120 years to complete.
IT projects from the small desktop refresh to the most ambitious government schemes can suffer from financial weakness – not all fail completely – many simply don’t achieve the business results they could or should have.
Gartners hype cycle for emerging technologies shows very clearly the number of emerging technologies that business today has to consider and how long it may take for some of these to reach the plateau of productivity where investment is rewarded.
The question of which technology to adopt, when to adopt it and how to structure the financial underpinnings is by no means easy even when you are adopting fairly mature technologies.
For today’s business managers, who are being asked to make complex business decisions that involve investment in IT that they increasingly do not have the background and time to fully understand in every detail, (after all who does understand all the technical, business and financial elements of even the simpler IT solutions) a well-reasoned and clear financial analysis could make the difference between approval or rejection.
The financial model need not necessarily be particularly complex – in many cases a straightforward ROI calculation will be sufficient to clarify the financial merits of your project and improve the chances of board approval and a successful and profitable project.
It is perhaps surprising how often the critical question of how best to fund an IT purchase, project or programme is left as an afterthought to be hastily tacked on the end of a time consuming and costly assessment process. There are many ways a project can be funded, the default position is all too often to wait until the last minute and do what is “easiest” Unfortunately “easiest” in this context may not be best or even second best.
It is said that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it so perhaps we should learn from Babbage and put just a bit more thought into finances from the outset so our technological visions take somewhat less than 120 years to reach fruition.