Y2K – Darwinism for IS?

Contrary to all the doomsday prophesies, the dreaded “year 2000 problem” is the best thing that ever happened to the corporate information systems (IS) function. Mind you, it won’t be great for the unfortunate few whose accounting systems bomb when those last seconds of the 1900’s tick away. Nor will their customers find happiness, especially if the unfortunate few we’re talking about are banks. For them, there will be the proverbial weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Most companies, though, will ring in the millennium without catastrophe. And benefits of the year 2000 shakeout, commonly referred to as Y2K, will be with us for a long time to come.

First of all, Y2K has raised the profile of information technology (IT) on mahogany row. An A.T. Kearney Inc. survey this past summer found that four out of five CEOs and other non-IT executives see the year 2000 as a business problem, not merely a computer problem. That’s a good thing. Those CEOs are now demanding regular reports on cleanup progress. Furthermore, Kearney Vice President Joel Goldhammer says Y2K rescue efforts are enterprisewide by necessity, and once CEOs see the benefits of getting all their business units on the same page, they’ll never want to go back to decentralized chaos. To be fair, IS had a hand in creating that chaos, says Goldhammer. “The IT guys don’t want to talk to the CEO any more than [he or she wants to talk to them],” in some cases because IT managers aren’t willing to loosen their grip on the reins, he says. But now that conversations are underway, both parties will be better able to get IT and business goals to promenade and do-si-do.

If the board of directors has no interest in or knowledge of the possibilities afforded by technology, then IT will never be anything more than plumbing. Y2K is demanding their attention. Ultimately, everyone will benefit because that attention will bolster the bottom line. “Now the executives have an appreciation of what kind of information the IT guys need to make the right decisions,” Goldhammer says.

The second enlightenment afforded by Y2K is that it finally gives IS executives a financially compelling reason to figure out what the heck systems their company uses. The truth is, at many companies IT is like Uncle Harry’s attic-who knows what’s kicking around up there? Some of it has real value; other stuff is just junk. Metrics guru Howard Rubin surveyed high-level IS types last year and found that a third of the respondents had no idea how big their application portfolios were, and 60 percent didn’t know how their time would be divided between new development and maintenance in a year. Um … hello? Rocketing sales of asset management software also suggest that many are scrambling to keep track of the thousands of PCs and Hewlett-Packard LaserJets they’ve spent the past decade installing. Together, these situations suggest too many are flying by the frayed seat of their cable-n-Cobol-patchwork pants.

Rubin calls Y2K “the great cosmic cleansing.” He also compares it to a sort of technological Darwinism for IS, weeding out those unfit for survival. “If after the year 2000 you don’t have the information to run your operation professionally, you’re out of business,” Rubin says.

Fortunately, most will get that information. Nothing like a crisis to get everything running smoothly.

(*Senior Writer Derek Slater can be reached at dslater@cio. com. Responses to this column, or suggestions for future topics, can be sent to reality@cio.com.)