PS Consultants - ideas & solutions

Power Corrupts
May 1998

Consider this unguarded remark for a moment::-

"…apart from us, there's IBM and then possibly Anderson, CSC and Cap-Gemini. So there's not a lot to choose from if you're judging on criteria such as - range of skills, ability to invest, ability to take risk, knowledge of the 'business', availability of sufficient staff and track record on these big contracts…."

This was a comment I received in response to posting a message in closed used group on CIX, the online conferencing system. I had been asked, by a TV producer of my acquaintance, to fish around for reactions to the proposition that large government IT contracts were usually cock-ups, so why doesn't anyone learn, and why do "certain companies" seem to get fat on failure..? That message included one specific behemoth of the IT trade, and within a day or so, although that is a "closed" conference, I received a message from the PR officer of that company, asking, in the nicest possible way, if they could help with me re-education.

I didn't know whether to be impressed or intimidated that these people appear to have their informers operating in areas that I might once have believed to be relatively confidential. Although the notion of "confidential" is almost completely a thing of the past in these enlightened and globally networked times, and we would all do well to remember that.

So let's consider the proposition of the PR person, just why is there "not a lot to choose from"..? This is an olde worlde view of the marketplace, where the size of the organisation was an essential element of its perceived ability to handle the "big contracts", that largely came about because of the issues of managing communication within organisations.

Large IT companies like ICL and IBM had the internal communication schemes that allowed them to build organisations capable of sending memos in all directions at once, and thereby capable of impressing governments. But there are still many tales of the fiascos of Council Tax computer systems, the London Stock Exchange software, the various health authority systems produce a rich collection of tales of disaster, budget overruns, and almost without exception, grotesquely late deliveries.

Much of this is due to the fact that it is in the nature of IT that each project tackled will include a large element of new learning, it goes with the territory, and rightly so if progress and new technology is to be involved. So maybe the notion of "track record" is irrelevant, since the ability to manage new and innovative systems concepts is what increasingly seems to matter. So would it not therefore be better to find a way to connect together the skills of small innovators, and create a virtual organisation that has a different and modern outlook..?

But best of all, the smaller and more versatile operations tend to have more directly motivated staff who are less mobile and more reliably accessible. The don't work long hours because of a fear of losing their important position on the corporate greasy pole - they tend to work long hours because they are excited and motivated to be a part of the most incredible industry of all time, and they are close to the rewards of getting it right. They also don't generally expect to get paid 1000/day for cock ups, something that the big consultancies have got down to a fine art after many years of practise.

We all know that corporate politics – ranging from the number of cubic centimetres in the company car's engine to the number of windows in the office – play an almost obsessive role in the lives of the souls than inhabit this dark world of large corporations. It's one very powerful way that the skilled manipulators managing staff in corporates dangle carrots and wield sticks.

Meantime, some of us yearn for a world full of mavericks who care passionately about what they do, why they do it, and don't give a stuff for the olde worlde notions of corporate traditions and politics.

The level of communications sophistication once reserved for IBM and its corporate ilk is now matched and exceeded by a combination of shareware, freeware and a 10/month access account. Moreover, the "virtual organisation" has more mobility and manoeuvrability than any of these old dinosaurs stuck in the layered management procedures and structures – the modern equivalent of the tar pits, if you like. Although I doubt if the decayed remains of a company like IBM would be nearly as useful in a million years time as to provide the motive force for some means of transport. Mind you, stoking a furnace with all those inter-executive memos, corporate expense claims and corporate brochures might help warm our descendants during the next Ice Age.

We can take our lessons from coral – a mass of tiny organisms living in symbiotic harmony, creating a living environment in which a diverse multiplicity of life can exist and flourish. And alongside this, the old "leviathan" approach to IT is about as inviting as doing business with a great white shark.

So now please ponder on the words of the PR office of one of those denizens of the deep: "there's not a lot to choose from".

The internet penny dropped with me when I realised that here was the light at the end of the corporate tunnel – the means of empowering individuals and small firms with even better communications opportunities than large corporates. Now let's hear the sound of pennies dropping become deafening, please – but not into the already overloaded coffers of the "usual suspects" that corner government contracts for no better reason than, to quote, "there's not a lot to choose from".