Exorcising the ghosts of IT past

For an industry or profession that is less than 100 years old, IT has a lot of ghosts.

There’s the ghost of Babbidge’s punched cards that IBM claimed as their own, only to gradually evolve into the plastic smart card with a magnetic stripe that holds your life history. Well, financial life history if you have a bankcard. Of course, that brings to mind the magnetic tape that whirs and clicks in spy movies to this day. As I recall, the cassettes weighed about twelve pounds and the sign of a good operator was how fast he or she could mount one of them, usually about three inches above normal reach. The sign of evolution is that we now have tiny disks and we have to exercise at the gym to develop upper body strength.

The ghosts of those big tape reels still haunt the dingy basements of governments and large corporations. The data is too valuable to lose and too expensive to retrieve. Now we go mining for data.

Probably the most prolific ghosts are the ghosts of business processes past. To this day there are account codes in use that started out as punched cards. If you wanted to sort, drill down into departments and find out how many blue-eyed computer operators lived in Mississauga, Ont., you needed at least 80 characters. Just to be on the safe side, they incorporated smart codes; the first five characters were the company or ministry, the next three were the department, the next eight or 10 were the account and then there was finally some data. That was so the average human being could look at all the numbers and letters and interpret them. How many projects have we seen where the chart of accounts structure in a modern package has been modified to handle 32 or 56 characters? Do those numbers sound familiar?

In the human resources world, businesses tried to track the employee’s life in the company, unfortunately, without much attention from the employees themselves. The end result has been that when trying to move data into a new HRMS, we know where employee 2 lived in 1985, but we don’t know where the person lives now or how much leave was accrued for retirement in the last 20 years. Not an overwhelming problem perhaps, but it can become expensive information to retrieve and even more expensive in terms of modifying some well-thought out financial and HR systems. It’s what I call the infinite capacity for perversion of a system.

Perhaps it’s time to lay some of these ghosts to rest, starting with the business processes and structures. Charts of accounts need to be stabilized and simplified. If you want to use OLAP tools to sort through your data and determine performance measurement or trend scenarios, you’d better start here. If you want to move into the e-world of electronic purchasing and payment, why not look carefully at the approval routes and structures that look like the ghosts of paper chases through five levels of approval. At least this is an area where governments have improved themselves. What once used to be a two-month exercise in moving paper invoices around the province or the country before even reaching the data-entry department is now handled in a matter of days. The fact that it still requires a long time to get paid from a government has more to do with business practices than the capability of the systems.

The trouble with trying to exorcise some of these ghosts is that we usually have the wrong people doing it. Internally, the accounting or HR world clings tenaciously to their favourite secret numbers and smart codes. External consultants of the accounting persuasion have their favourite elegant solutions. Nobody seems to think that knowledgeable IT departments or IT companies that know the business could possibly improve the business processes. That’s our fault. We started using the term “reengineering” for something that had never been engineered in the first place. We cling to our models of systems as the ultimate panacea. Whatever happened to the old fashioned simple terms like “job simplification,” “efficiency” and “data management?” Maybe we should bring them back, improve our business processes and let at least some of the old ghosts rest in peace.

Horner is a partner atSierra Systems Group Inc.He can be reached atalhorner@sierrasystems.com.