Planning IT. By David Silk. Butterworth Heinemann in association with Management Today; 161pp; £12.95. Review by Jane Bird.
What do silicon chips, optical fibres and Bondi Beach have in common? They are all made from sand. Such down-to-earth observations are rare in the world of computers, which is more notable for obscure acronyms and unintelligible jargon. This handbook, aimed at senior managers concerned with information technology strategy, shows that a sizable work on the subject can be written in plain English.
The author, David Silk, is not even guilty of the other common fault of information technology writers: handing out advice in the form of worthy generalities without indicating how to get from one point to the next. Instead, he offers highly practical guidance, about how to identify the benefits of IT, and about putting together an action plan to realise them.
Silk advocates a three-phase approach, which is mirrored in the structure of the book. First, he focuses on the organisation, highlighting common problems such as the cultural divide between operational managers and technical managers. Then he expands the field of vision to encompass the generic benefits of IT - efficiency, effectiveness, competitive advantage. Finally, Silk shows how to analyse an organisation in order to discover how it can use IT most effectively.
The theory is illuminated by numerous examples, although some are surprisingly old for such a fast-changing industry: Thomson Holidays' on-line reservation system - which saved about £25 million a year and tripled productivity - dates back to 1982; and the story of how Blue Circle optimised efficiency in cement processing by employing expert systems in place of human operators was recounted on a 1990 Department of Trade and Industry video.
The imaginary case studies which Silk dreamed up himself are more instructive. One concerns a supermarket identification system. Customers insert their cards at the door of the shop, along with details of how many days' supplies they want. The computer then prints out suggested menus based on the customer's preferences, together with plans showing where to find the ingredients. The potential benefits of such a scheme are so complicated to evaluate that many managers rely on a gut feeling alone when deciding whether or not to go ahead. But Silk shows that it is possible, with detailed analysis, to produce a much clearer view of the financial benefits as a guide to rational decision-making. His message is that, even though technology is advancing at a rapid pace, the basic rules do not change.
Indeed, as IT matures and becomes increasingly integrated within organisations, there is less and less reason for singling it out as a special case.
Planning IT offers non-experts a complete course in industry aphorisms: such as 2+2=0.5 (ie, projects take twice as long as anticipated, and cost twice as much to deliver half the promised performance). There is also the point about the dynamic nature of IT, and the ephemeral competitive advantage it offers. Users must constantly review their IT strategy, and keep looking for new ways to get ahead.
To ensure that such maxims are not missed, they are printed in large, bold type. Graphs and diagrams are liberally sprinkled throughout the text to illustrate key points. Several chapters have tables of questions at the end. Readers are invited to be "ruthlessly self-critical" in their answers. Filling in the tables, which are repeated in an appendix at the end, provides a full information management audit, complete with scores and totals highlighting areas that require attention.
This book cuts through the rhetoric and salesman's hype and offers practical, comprehensive guidance to managers implementing IT strategy. It covers all aspects of the subject, from the technology of microprocessors to the worries of staff who feel threatened by computers, or concerned about possible health risks.
Moreover it is delivered with refreshing enthusiasm. The author observes that IT is not just about how you can surprise your customers by giving them what they do not normally expect, it allows you to delight them by giving them what they never expected. And all this is thanks to the remarkable properties of sand.
Jane Bird is a freelance writer on information technology.