First Published in PC Pro Magazine, 1996

Let me tell you a little story about British management. Once upon a time, there was a big Foreign company that decided to open a UK subsidiary. They tried to make it work just the way it worked back home, complete with Total Quality Management (TQM) methods and everything (except paternity leave). Then the silly buggers made the mistake of putting British management in, and cocked it up royally.

The silly British managers sat around talking in self-congratulatory, back-slapping tones about how wonderful their TQM manuals were. And they talked. And they talked. And they talked. In fact, they talked so much that they had no time left to actually implement their TQM procedures. Or, in fact, to manage anything except where and when the next TQ meeting was going to be.

The company didn’t really have an IT manager; or rather, they did, but he didn’t have an IT department. Some clever TQ expert had taken the clever decision to contract out the British subsidiary’s entire IT requirement. The contract was won by a British company, who impressed the IT manager with tales of their high-quality facilities management. Unfortunately, he was completely unperceptive, otherwise he might not have missed the fact that the contractor couldn’t actually give a monkey’s. So much so, that the contractor sub-contracted it out to the British subsidiary of an even bigger company based in the USA. Sadly, they also had nothing belonging to a monkey to offer.

Time went on, and things went from bad to worse. The network crashed a lot, which the contractors blamed on “the users filling up the server hard disks”. Of course, they were right – the network wasn’t there for the users at all. IT didn’t really work for anybody, except the Big Bosses at the facilities management companies without any part of a prehensile-tailed primate to bestow. Their wallets got very big, and so did their cars.

One day, a new marketing manager came on the scene; let’s just call him Timmy. Timmy loved the cut-and-thrust of management, and he loved to talk in the bold Americanisms (which he’d learned at a marketing seminar) at the management meetings about leveraging this and empowering that, and actualizing the other. But there was something nagging in the back of Timmy’s mind, something that he just couldn’t shake off. Day after day went by with Timmy getting more and more worried, but he couldn’t work out why. Then he found the answer one day whilst he was doing his ablutions in the executive wash-rooms (not sneaking in a crafty fag).

“Customers!” he cried. “We’ve got customers!”, and with that he rushed down the corridor to tell his friend Jane all about his idea. Jane thought it was a very good idea, and Timmy beamed with pride. Timmy’s idea was this: to commission a new computer database system to remind everyone about these customer-people, and improve the company’s quality of contact with them. He called a local firm of software-makers and they agreed to come and see him to get a better idea of what Timmy wanted.

A few weeks later, the wise old software-maker brought the new system before Timmy and his friends at the British subsidiary of the big Foreign company. “It’s written in Microsoft Access” said the software-maker, “just like you wanted”. “That’s great!” said Timmy, and his friends all beamed with glee at the physical manifestation of Timmy’s bright idea. After the meeting, which they all agreed was even fuller than usual with Total Quality, Timmy took his new toy and plugged it into the network.

“Boo-hoo!” cried Timmy, as he watched his new software toy becoming a very-slow thing instead of the quite-fast thing he’d seen earlier. “Never mind”, said Jane, appearing by his side. “Call the wise old software-maker – he’ll know what to do!”

Soon enough, the wise old software-maker came back and Timmy told him what had happened. “Never mind, Timmy” said the software-maker, “I’ll see if I can do some performance tuning on it”. So the software maker set to work. He went hither and thither, tinkering here, and adjusting there, using his years of solid, real-world computing experience. He tried the new database system over and over again, but nothing speeded it up at all. Finally, in exasperation, he decided to measure the speed of the network. Lo and behold, the silly thing was achieving about 100k per second transferring data over the network, about a tenth of what it should have been.

There had been suggestions by some of the facilities management contractor’s IT people that the software-maker’s software was complete crap, but the wise old software-maker knew when he was being stitched up. He made it plain to Timmy and his company in a letter that responsibility for the system’s ponderous behaviour lay with the complete lack of network management.

The British subsidiary of the big Foreign company took the advice of their facilities management contractor and paid them £65,000 pounds to re-write the simple contact management system as a client/server monstrosity, even though the contractor was blatantly lining its own pockets. Timmy’s new boss decided he didn’t like all this customer service rubbish that Timmy was pushing for, and demoted him, which was constructive dismissal by any other name. And everyone lived happily ever after – that is, happily oblivious to the fact that they were a totally disfunctional, aimless, empty-headed collection of individuals who couldn’t do anything except go to TQM meetings and talk in self-congratulatory, back-slapping tones about how wonderful their TQM manuals were.

All except the wise old software-maker, who was just pleased to get away from them all back into some sort of relative sanity.

And the moral of the story is thus: if IT really matters to you, don’t contract it out to someone who doesn’t give a monkey’s, who contracts it out to someone else who couldn’t give a monkey’s. And make sure someone takes some responsibility for something, just occasionally. And don’t think for a moment that you’ll solve all your problems by just saying that you do TQM.

Copyright © 1996 Jon Silver