My Best-ever I.T. Decision

Good decision-making is something of a black art in most areas of an organisation. In IT, it can be a particular headache: seminars on choosing the right services partner are well attended; word-of-mouth vendor recommen- dations are highly valued - in both cases because IT decisions can seem relatively arbitrary, ill-founded or just plain incomprehensible.

by Mark Vernon
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

But, occasionally, decisions are made and the results just fly. It may be that the choice captures the right strategic focus - accidentally or by design. It may be that actually something rather small makes a very big difference, or that an opportunity presents itself to make a decision that radically affects the whole course of IT.

So in this summer season, here at MT we decided to ask a number of senior technology figures a rather more reflective question: what was your best-ever IT decision? Their answers are by turn amusing, inspiring, informative - and unexpected. And, perhaps most interestingly, they show the importance of personality in what can otherwise seem like a pretty impersonal decision-making process.


My decision - Keeping all company e-mails

A couple of years ago, users were struggling to manage the huge volume of e-mail they were dealing with, becoming overwhelmed and losing track of valuable information as a result. Overall, with 3,500 exchange users, Somerfield was sending and receiving 100,000 external e-mails a month, in addition to internal e-mails.

I realised that solving the problem with a reliable and easily searchable e-mail archive would be enormously beneficial. The finance department would save money by accurately tracking and rationalising negotiations with suppliers, and it would be easier to meet legal requirements on data protection, document retention and so on; HR would be better able to investigate alleged employee misbehaviour; and the IT department would be relieved of some of the burden of managing exchange applications.

I made the decision to retain all of Somerfield's e-mails to keep up with the mass of regulation and compliance laws with which companies now have to deal. Although this may seem a big burden on the company, I can search the e-mails in a matter of seconds, thanks to the Veritas Enterprise Vault system. I believe that nine times out of 10, the critical business information we seek resides within the corporate e-mail system.

Somerfield employs an auditing firm to recover money owing to us that we may have lost track of. By using our e-mail archive, the job is completed in seconds and has saved the company £3 million in two and a half years.


My decision - Introducing e-ticketing at Qantas in 1996

I had been involved in the early stages of e-ticketing when I was at Air Canada, and I'd come to believe that airlines were doing two very silly things. The first was giving customers a complicated paper ticket with high monetary value. The second was taking it back from them and processing it in the most arcane way imaginable.

It is hard now to believe the resistance to the e-ticket idea when it was first introduced. The marketing people believed that customers would not use them. The airport people believed that it would be impossible to operate effectively, particularly when flights were disrupted by weather or technical problems. The finance people were worried about revenue accounting and fraud.

However, customers loved it (particularly older people, which was a surprise) and it turned out to work better for operations and accounting. Fraud was almost non-existent: at Qantas, the system issued more than a million e-tickets before encountering a case of fraud.

Today, e-ticketing is the norm for almost all airlines - some are 100% e-ticketing. It has had an important impact on airline costs and is the key enabler for online booking. Most importantly, it has made air travel much more convenient for customers.


My decision - Moving to broadband at home

My best IT decision was actually a personal one: moving on to broadband and using a wireless network at home.

Frustratingly, my home is not served by BT broadband - the exchange is enabled, but I am too far from it. I have never understood that reason.

I had just about given up finding a solution when I saw a flyer in my local chip shop (yes, really) for a small wireless SDSL provider called Airzone. One week later, it was all up and running and it has transformed my household.

Before, my wife and I and two teenage kids had one computer linked to the internet via dial-up. This led to continual refereeing of 'whose turn is it now on MSN?' We were, all in all, rather second-rate internet citizens.

Now we have three laptops permanently in use; two kids permanently on MSN (even sitting alongside each other in the same room); and Mum and Dad experiencing video, iTunes and so on, all at the same time.

For me, the move was a real wake-up call in terms of how consumers - particularly the young - really use the internet and computers; not necessarily what they do when online, but how it quickly becomes an essential part of their lives. Getting broadband at home was a great insight both personally and professionally.


My decision - Learning SQL relational database programming

In the mid-80s, there were many more exotic choices in programmes around.

I studied Artificial Intelligence for my degree and was sponsored by British Telecom, spending summers working with IBM developing expert systems to support mainframe operations. But I chose to learn SQL (Structured Query Language), and although it may not have been the most important decision in some ways, it affected my life dramatically. It led to my first job in the corporate world, moving from government and defence into a consulting company that was crying out for database skills. From there, I gained experience in investment banking, went on to set up consulting divisions and manage product companies - all leveraging these early skills. Had I chosen a different technology to focus on, I'd have had a very different career.

Now at Avanade, I am working with Yukon, the latest evolution of Microsoft's SQL server. Clearly, I'm no longer programming SQL, but the decisions I take about what technologies can be relied on is well informed by that knowledge: SQL has become a standard that is critical to the IT industry and the users it serves.

XML and web services are maturing standards and will grow to have an even greater impact.

But I suspect SQL will be with me throughout my career; I am prepared to bet that in 10 to 20 years we will still be using technology based on SQL.


My decision - Moving out of the IT department

For me personally, the best IT decision I ever made by far was moving out of a senior IT services role in a large company environment and culture and into the fast-growth entrepreneurial business that is Lagan.

I started my career in the aircraft industry, moved to ICL in sales and then into utilities. All those organisations were large, with their own inherent culture. I felt that quite a number of the people who worked in them were trapped by what they perceived as security and the salary offered to them. There was a limit to the sense of ownership and entrepreneurship, and for many a lack of opportunity to be creative.

In 1999 I joined Lagan as CEO, at the time of the boom. Lagan was a services business then, but we decided to reshape and become a product business focusing on CRM software. In March 2001, after a lot of hard slog, we won our first local government customer, Birmingham City Council, in a competitive tender. We now have more than 70 government clients, spanning several continents.

Looking back to when I started in the aerospace industry, I would never have dreamed I'd be where I am today. Leading an entrepreneurial business can be a real rollercoaster ride, but it's also an immensely satisfying and rewarding experience.


My decision - Equipping staff with mobile e-mail

I made my best IT decision relatively recently by providing my senior management team with a new mobile e-mail service, MobilePA, from Sirenic.

I looked at a number of mobile e-mail services, including BlackBerry. Whereas BlackBerry is mainly an e-mail device, MobilePA offers not only e-mail but additional functions such as access to intranet content, business applications and news services.

It also generates e-mail to voice/voice to e-mail to enable the user to access and respond while on the move.

The facility is available to virtually any device - mobile phone, smartphone, PC, laptop or PDA, depending on how the user chooses to access information at his or her location.

It also works on existing phones, so the company did not have to invest in expensive new devices. This also helped us to manage the security risks that can be associated with new PDAs.

Mobile e-mail is revolutionising the way colleagues work at City Capital.

It is simple to use and does not require any additional software or hardware.

Features such as the prioritisation of e-mail cut out unnecessary e-mail and spam. Colleagues have increased their productivity and saved money as a result.


My decision - The alignment of IT decisions with the promotion of democracy

My best IT decision came when I managed Accenture's South African government practice in the mid-90s. I asked the team to stop evaluating opportunities on strictly financial grounds. The very weak rand made negligible impact on a global business managed in US dollars. Instead, I asked them to focus on the value that a project would have in helping democracy take root in the new South Africa.

I would only approve it if we could imagine our global CEO telling the world that he was proud of the role Accenture was playing in securing South Africa's democratic future because of it.

The team responded brilliantly and secured a project to help the Independent Electoral Commission build a world-class electoral infrastructure in time for the 1999 General Election. In 1994, when President Mandela was elected, it had been a great day for democracy, but administratively things were chaotic.

The project was hugely successful. The second election ran very smoothly, and the joint IEC/Accenture team won a Smithsonian award for their efforts. Our CEO duly spoke with real pride on the global stage about the project - which, incidentally, was profitable too.

From it I learned that a strategic focus on value is the most important feature of any IT-enabled change project.


My decision - In-sourcing IT

At a time when the fashion is to outsource, we have bucked the trend and, as a consequence, have complete control over our IT, including the costs. This has led to more than 30% annual savings of our IT spend, with no reduction in service. On the contrary, there has been a distinct increase in the level of service.

When Spirit Group acquired Scottish & Newcastle Retail in November 2003, we had the perfect opportunity to review our whole IT systems and infrastructure.

It was a painful process: bringing our systems in-house, building a new data centre, transferring all the hardware and software, and recruiting a new team at a time when we were also bringing together two businesses.

We strongly believe that success is achieved by acting as one team. When we were outsourced, it was very difficult for IT to be considered as part of Spirit and to really understand our business. We had to build an IT team from scratch, so we have been able to hand-pick our people, recruiting for great attitude and good fit with the Spirit culture.

Another part of our strategy is to conduct our business 'faster, better and at lower cost'. With the millions we have saved by in-sourcing IT, and judging by the speed with which we can address our continual demands for system enhancements, our IT certainly meets this criteria.


My decision - Committing to deliver only what you can

IT departments tend to be dogged by one of two attitudes. The first is to say 'OK, yes, we can do that' when asked to do anything - ironically, in a desire to help. The second is to say 'No, that is too difficult', often because IT feels the business does not understand.

Both take little or no account of timescales, estimates or whether what is being asked for is realistic. Then, when something goes wrong, this leads to dissatisfaction and loss of goodwill, to say nothing of wasted time and opportunity.

So my best IT decision was to implement a process that results in committing only to what can be delivered. Now, before we arrive at the 'yes' stage, we go around all the stakeholders - resourcing, security, financial and so on - and have them explain to us, and us to them, exactly what the piece of work in question entails. We work out what can be done within the given constraints and what cannot be done.

For example, if a project would increase the complexity of the corporate infrastructure when one of our goals is to simplify it, we take the project back and reshape it. This way, we are all working to make the business better.

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