Technology hucksterism?

Profile picture for user euan_semple By Euan Semple March 2, 2014
Summary:
In a doomsday scenario, Euan Semple asks what, if anything have vendors learned about software that helps people get work done?

State of the Net
State of the Net

This guest post by Euan Semple is one of short series of provocative stories aimed at raising questions about people and applications. At the end, Den Howlett offers an alternative point of view that sheds a glimmer of light and hope in what is often a dire landscape.

“Is it unfair to characterise the IT industry as dodgy characters in cheap suits selling wish fulfillment to out of their depth executives.”

I wrote this on my blog more than ten years ago. I wrote it in response to the endless stream of salesmen I experienced in my day job running Digilab at the BBC where we explored the good, the bad, and the ugly in terms of enterprise tools that might be of use to my organisation. Sadly ten year on things haven’t changed. The words have. Instead of Knowledge Management we have Social. Instead of Data Mining we have Big Data and instead of Network Infrastructure we have The Cloud. But the game is the same. Too often we are faced with technology that is over engineered and overcomplicated for its purpose, buyers who struggle to understand the real nature of their businesses, and salesmen who struggle to understand their own over complicated software.

It is hard for business people to know what they are buying and why. Take the current interest in enterprise social tools. Social has been hyped up the yazoo and corporations feel pressure to keep up with the latest case study of the latest posterchild “social enterprise”. But social tools are by their nature disruptive. They change things. This is why they are useful. Business still has a view of organisations and “efficiency” that makes the networked efficiency of social tools a challenge to the status quo. Not many are ready to deal with this. So with social tools for business we again have people who aren’t sure what they are buying, what they are buying it for, and whether it does or doesn’t do that thing well.

There is also a pressure to buy “enterprise grade” solutions, to spend lots of money on known names rather than to take the risk of building their own. It is easier to go with the flow of existing business processes than it is to break ranks. As the CIO for a global institution once put it to me “It is easier to spend $100,000 than it is $100.

Behind every software system there is a core idea, a presenting problem that people were trying to solve, a simple and effective way of solving that problem. But somehow we lose our way, too many people get involved, the original purpose is forgotten, and too many vested interests kick in. Occam’s Razor, the principle that “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily”, is sadly forgotten by too many in the IT industry. Maybe the problem is that it has been turned into an industry rather than staying true to its roots in enthusiastic amateurism that is seeing a renaissance in the Open Source movement?

How much further could the NHS patient record system have got if a group of hackers had got together with a group of doctors and their admin support and knocked up something “good enough”, used it for a while, adapted it, showed it to doctors in nearby hospitals, built just enough hooks to connect data using web standards, wash, rinse and repeat. How much further could you have got for £12bn than the centralised, stitched up, over specified disaster that ended up never delivering?

Am I being naive? Is the nightmare inevitable? Despite my harsh characterisation of the industry at the start of this piece I know that most people, in most organisations are trying to do a good job with what they know. Some of them must have misgiving though. How many people in the NHS fiasco had uneasy feelings but didn’t say anything? Why did they keep quiet? What did they fear? Is technology hucksterism inevitable? Is it a consequence of the sales process and the complexity of the world we work in – or could we do better?

Den Howlett POV

We seem to have reached a point where the incumbent application vendors have woken up to the fact that it is people who use software, and not the decision makers who buy into whatever they were sold. In recent times I have met several large vendor representatives who realise that a part of their future lays in the hands of users with whom they are not used to communicating. 

But even there lies danger. I recall the effort Microsoft put into its ‘ribbon’ interface for its Office products, the testing, the user acceptance work and numerous pimp videos and posts by then evangelist Robert Scoble. We all know how that turned out. That’s a classic example of hot housing the process instead of going in with a clean sheet of paper, two ears open and one mouth shut. Perhaps therein lies the real lesson for us all. 

Bonus points: we have included a link to Euan's book page on his own site. It's a cracking read and well recommended.