The insider's guide to why your technology isn't working

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The Independent Online
When businesses run into problems with their information technology, those problems are not so much to do with the technology itself as with the process to which it is being applied, and the people running it.

That is the view of Christiane Wuillamie, chair and chief executive officer of CWB Systems Services. CWB is, in its own words, in the business of: "analysing IT problems in the context of a client's overall business, not just technology."

Between enrolling on a Tops course in computer programing during the late Seventies, forming CWB in March 1994, and being included among the finalists at this year's prestigious Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year Awards, Ms Wuillamie has found that businesses both great and small keep making the same mistakes when they buy their IT.

So much so that they are providing her organisation with a lucrative niche market which shows no sign of contracting. With annual revenues expected to hit pounds 25m for the fiscal year just completed, CWB has enjoyed 100 per cent growth year on year over the past five years. Clients have so far included many well-known international banks.

The mistakes are errors made by both those selling the IT, and those buying it. According to Ms Wuillamie, as often as not, while the rep selling the IT system understands perfectly the system he is selling, he doesn't always know what he is talking about when it comes to the actual sale he is negotiating; he does not have a true understanding of his customer's business.

At the same time, while the buyer may know what functions he wants this technology to perform for him, he may not be aware that for much of the time, he in his area of expertise, and the IT vendor in his, are talking at cross-purposes. All too often this results in the acquisition of an IT system that's perfectly efficient, but which happens to be incompatible with the tasks it was purchased to carry out.

"I was aware of this when I started in information technology over 20 years ago," said Ms Wuillamie. "I went on one of those Tops courses and learned how to program, after which I chose to work with business systems.

"In doing that I found that computers are no good unless your application of them is relevant to your business; and it's not just a question of having the right software. In normal business life there is not just technology, but also processes. If you don't put the right process into work - like deciding who does what, as in a factory with different people doing different jobs, and link them all together - it just doesn't work.

"For example, when two banks merge, it is because they want to create a new business; but the resulting system may not cater for what they need in the new organisation they have formed.

"They might discover that the products they are trying to sell are different, so in turn the processes that are needed are different. That's when they find out that the system is there, but that it cannot cope. This is because they have not thought about how the business should be run in the first place."

Asked what pitfalls a business buying IT should watch out for, Ms Wuillamie says: "People suffer from poor project management. They don't have good enough skills to organise the project, so that it turns up on time and within budget.

"The other problem people suffer most from is that the IT providers don't really understand their business customers' requirements.

"While the people providing the technology don't spend enough time on gaining an understanding of the customer's business, the people in their client businesses don't understand the technology enough to appreciate its potential. We are the people who bridge the gap in between.

"Also, the technology people aren't able to explain their products in lay terms. Because they are interested in technology, full stop, they are not equipped with the business language of their customers; and they don't try to learn it, because all their interest is focused on the technology.

"Technology people are not so good at doing that. Things are getting better, but in real terms, while business people are still quite removed from technology, the technology people are themselves quite insular.

"Sometimes if a businessman doesn't understand the technology he feels a bit embarrassed, but he must not. He's spending the money, so he must insist that everything is explained in lay terms, until he is happy that he has fully understood.

"The IT industry should be researching in very much more detail the businesses its clients are in. Unless you really know the business your client is in, you cannot service them."

CWB, 80 Bishopsgate, London EC2N 4AG. Tel: 0171-650 0100; fax 0171-650 0101; e-mail: