How did banks’ IT get in such a mess?

August 27th, 2010

The Economist has an interesting article on UK banks and the problems of historic systems development causing a lack of co-ordinated, fully integrated, customer focussed IT.  Of course, it would be great (although pie in the sky) to migrate to a greenfield IT architecture, but only brand new companies (like Metro Bank) truly have that option.

The lack of integration in banking has been caused by a combination of build and buy, the need to address regulatory changes, the launch of new products (yes, I remember the launch of credit cards, never mind ISAs).  But you might assume that, because banks have been around since IT was invented, and have been perpetual early adopters, that it is only old industries that suffer this problem.

It got me thinking about newer industries, take Telecoms and Media for example.  Why didn’t they have the opportunity to greenfield their IT?  My take is that it is the opposite of the banking scenario.  That is, the industry exploded so fast the ability to keep up with the pace of change meant that systems had to be cobbled together on the fly.  To grow a company from almost nothing to £80Bn in a few years must put enormous pressure on the CIO.

So despite the provocative headline of this post, the mess is entirely understandable and it is difficult to envisage any other result than the one we have.  We now must learn how to live with it, both in the short term and the long term using a combination of strategic and tactical initiatives targeted at the nirvana offered to new entrants.  However, if Metro Bank experiences the sudden growth it expects, I wonder how long before it suffers the same integration problems as everyone else?

Integration is so easy, IT can’t do it!

August 5th, 2010

I stumbled across Mike Vizard’s post, Managing Borderless Applications.  Mike’s contention is that IT is facing a support headache caused by integration that they don’t know about.  Integration carried out by business users using web based tools integrating web based applications.  Integrations and automations that will ultimately become mission critical, and then break, at which point the business will stare over at IT and ask for help.  And, as web apps race for ubiquity, this problem will inevitably increase.

It is an interesting conundrum that we spent a lot of time thinking about at Blue Prism.  The reason business users run off and do their own integration, is because IT takes too long to deliver in the context of the speed of business today. So the business gets its solution quickly, but this type of end user computing carries a high risk of failure in the medium term due to lack of documentation, security, maintenance and support.

We realised that end-user integration and process automation, whilst technically possible, needs controlling.  The trick is to find the balance between IT discipline and user freedom and flexibility.

We found that this works best if IT sets out a corridor of governance within which the business users can operate.  Some of the components of this approach need to be built into the integration/automation technology.  Some need to come from a new “light touch” governance methodology that both IT and the business subscribe to.

The business gets an agile response to rapidly changing business requirements, but IT knows about the computing initiatives and helps the business to deliver them within a supported environment.

Not easy to resolve, but worth the effort for the competitive advantage that comes from agile operations.

Public sector IT spending freezes

July 8th, 2010

UK Government austerity measures continue to bite.  I see Computer Weekly reporting that HMRC is freezing spending on “routine improvements”  to systems.

But Operations still needs to operate right?  Taxes and NI still must be collected.  So are the systems merely going to be allowed to decay?  How can Operations adapt to challenging new requirements?

Public sector operations will need a new response and I think Business Led Computing may be coming of age.  Technologies that enable business operations to self serve some of their IT and process automation requirements, can release 20-30% of operational cost savings, with minimal impact on the IT cost base.

Otherwise the only solution is to increase staff, and that increases costs.  Hmmm….

Gartner: “No IT assets”

June 22nd, 2010

I’ve just downloaded the Gartner Top End User Predictions for 2010.  The very first one jumps on the Cloud/SaaS/Virtualisation bandwagon and gives it a whacking great crack of the whip.

“By 2012, 20% of businesses will own no IT assets”.  This is a stunner.  On closer inspection Gartner means hardware assets, not software, but even so, can we really believe this?

I will be happy to stand corrected.  I think that, supported by a very compelling business case, most enterprises are likely to head towards delegating responsibility for application development and support, and hardware procurement, configuration and management to external organisations.  But haven’t we seen all this hype before?  Consolidation of end user computing resources within the enterprise never really took off, did it?  Enterprises have so much invested in existing hardware and systems that I can’t see any, large ones at least, making so much headway in such a short space of time.

I expect the vast majority of larger enterprises, even the ones trying to aggressively adopt Cloud et al, to be living with legacy on-premise systems for at least another 10 years.  Am I a Luddite?

Sticking plaster mobile phone convergence

June 11th, 2010

I wish my mobile phone was all I needed to carry around.  OK, it is already a phone, a browser, an email device, alarm clock, twitter client, compass, satellite navigation, games console, railway timetable, newspapers and, bizarrely, a magnifying glass.  But why can’t it also be my car keys?  My TV remote?  My passport?  My wallet?

Well, Citi have contributed to the debate by offering a sticking plaster solution, both virtually and literally.  A sliver that adheres to the back of your mobile phone and enables contactless payments of up to $50 at Master Card PayPass readers.  This is a proper workaround but hopefully it is proving the need for something more strategic.

Hopefully within my lifetime, we will all have a unique identity held (securely) within our mobile phone.  Every time we buy a new device like a laptop or car, every time we are permitted access to a new office, club or country, every time we want to make a small or large payment, the infrastructure around us will adapt to us.

At the moment the supplier of the service or product grants us a single unique interface (for example a key).  The future will be citizen-centric.

Mysteries of SOA

June 8th, 2010

I was alerted on Twitter by Corizon, the enterprise mashup company to The 9 Great Unsolved Mysteries of SOA by the ever trusty Joe McKendrick.

Here is my take.  If IT departments started listening more to what their businesses need to succeed in their own competitive environment, and less to vendor promoted architectural trends, then people would stop talking about whether SOA/Cloud/SaaS/Private Cloud/WTF is successful and move on to the much more important issue of whether businesses thrive irrespective of their choice of architecture.

Business Ops should have more control

May 19th, 2010

Do you remember the days of early websites?  Come on you don’t have to be that old.  I wrote a paper for my Masters in 1997 that recommended that banks, for example, ought to have more transactional websites even though, at the time, there was not a huge business case for the investment.  Hard to believe that was only 13 years ago.

In those days, if your organisation was lucky enough to have a website, you were starting to gain competitive advantage.  Especially if you could keep it up to date more quickly than your competitors.

However, that depended on your IT dept and an army of HTML programmers, who wanted a specification, a design document, a test environment, methodology, design authority, sign off procedures etc etc.

Then someone invented Content Management Systems.  The purpose of a CMS was to enable the business to make their own website changes in real time but, and this is a crucial but, within a corridor of governance enabled by the IT dept.  So it was possible to change the text, but not corrupt customer data.  It was possible to change pictures, but not corporate design rules.  It was possible to change the database contents, but not the database itself.  So business users can do a whole load of useful stuff without the risk of bringing down the site.

Of course, other governance is required.  Someone still needs to take responsibility for the content that, in an instant, is representing your organisation around the globe.  But without this level of flexibility how can your company compete with the speed of business today?

This type of flexibility (I prefer to think of it as agility) is now finding its way into the operational world.  Giving business ops a way of doing their own process integration, orchestration and execution for example is freeing the business to react to the daily challenges of the changing world.  At Blue Prism we call it Business Led Computing.  It is a growing movement.  People are used to being able to do their own computing at home.  The next big thing in corporate computing might just be self serve.

Complex IT programs need contingency

April 27th, 2010

British journal, Computer Weekly, is reporting on a fallout between British Gas and Accenture over a billing system implementation.  I have neither fact nor rumour to comment on the legal case.  However, it is another example of how major IT programs carry inherent complexity and when things don’t work out quite as planned, for whatever reason, it is helpful to have some backup capability.

British Gas reported having to recruit “thousands” of staff at a cost of more than £180M.  Blue Prism works with a number of customers using its Operational Agility Software to help with projects that are de-scoped, re-scoped at short notice or where implementations are painful and require manual workarounds for periods of time.  Whether this be a conversion or migration issue, fulfilling incomplete scope, or coping with unforeseen last minute changes, Blue Prism customers have a back up plan.

I am interested in hearing other ways of insuring against major IT program implementation difficulties.

Agile Methods is still an IT project

April 21st, 2010

I was chatting to the Head of Change at a global energy company last week.  His view of Agile was that it was a good way of delivering “IT projects” but it is still constrained by many of traditional IT project costs and timescales, notably upfront costs of setting up the team, infrastructure, and working on the design.

My understanding of Agile (which I admit is limited) is that the twin objectives are to increase the speed of delivery and to improve the match between business requirements and delivered functionality.  Anything that does that has to be applauded.

However, this is not enough for this energy company.  Extending the concept of IT delivery further leads inevitably to business self serve, and why not?  Almost everyone has a self serve capability in their private lives.  We can do our own bank transactions, make purchases, publish a website (like this one), engage in conversations and much more, all using software that is designed for ease of use and personal autonomy.

Yet in our business lives, to make the tiniest change in our working practice requires a Change Request, supported by a business case, submitted to change control, considered, categorised and prioritised, designed (if you are lucky), and finally built and delivered.

The energy co’s vision is to empower the business operation to build its own IT, quickly, cost effectively and tested to meet their exact specification.  The solution may stand the test of time, or it may be replaced, or it may be rolled into a later IT project.  But the operations teams get the chance to do something with incredible speed and negligible cost.

In one sense this should fill us with horror due to the lack of governance and control.  But if these things can be reconciled in the enterprise, imagine the organisational power that is released.

Most service organisations are trying to push decision making control, authority and execution out to end customers.  Whether you call it Straight Through Processing, Customer Self Serve, or Customer Empowerment the objective is to improve customer convenience whilst simultaneously reducing processing costs.

Aren’t we missing the guys in the middle here?  What about business operations?  What about their agility?

Change of domain

April 12th, 2010

I have found a more relevant domain name – – that is no mean feat these days!

The old domain will redirect to this new one for a few months but you may wish to update your RSS feed now.