Science: After the software snarl-ups: Suppliers may need a certificate of competence to win orders - but what do they prove? Lynne Curry reports on an industry in turmoil

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The Independent Online
Behind its calm, well-presented face, the computer software industry is in turmoil. Growing dissatisfaction with self-regulation and standards controls have resulted in calls from within the industry for expulsion and censure of companies found guilty of overcharging and poor performance.

The confusion follows an embarrassing series of computer system foul-ups, involving the London Ambulance Service in October 1992 and the Wessex regional health authority in May last year, which took the industry off the specialist pages and into the public eye.

Then a campaign in the United States against the adoption of an international standard based on the British model was orchestrated by some of the most prominent businesses in the country.

Companies that recommend or provide software are not subject to any external regulation. But the industry, in conjunction with the Department of Trade and Industry, has come up with a variety of schemes and certifications designed to demonstrate the bona fides and competence of individual firms.

The standards are contained in BS 5750, which certifies that a company has a quality system, and a progression from this, TickIT. TickIT is an extension to international standard 9001, the international equivalent of BS 5750, and focuses on software. It is the model for the scheme now causing ructions in the US.

An increasing number of British companies are applying for accreditation under BS 5750 or TickIT or both. Some use the logos in the same way as they would the insignia of a Queen's Award for Export achievement or a royal crest.

However, the certifications have been criticised for being meaningless, bureaucratic or prohibitively expensive for smaller companies that may be producing brilliant software without having a bulging bank account.

An increasing number of large and influential buyers, including IBM and British Telecom, now insist that suppliers have some form of certification. The Ministry of Defence also demands certification and other government departments are likely to follow.

Supporters of certification say it encourages better practice, improves morale and offers a competitive edge. Its detractors say it is an expensive assurance of nothing more than good procedure and offers no guarantee of product quality. Its fiercest critics say certification is being used as a cynical marketing tool and a bandwagon for consultancy firms who have identified another 'business opportunity'.

'All these schemes are procedural,' says one critic. 'To talk about quality is something totally different. Unfortunately, it started off well then got into the hands of the PR men, and it's become, 'if you want to deal with a quality company, you have to have BS 5750', which is pure rubbish.'

The most outspoken attacks on software regulation have come from inside the industry. Laurence Holt, chairman of the Quidnunc Group, sparked a fierce row when he called on the Computing Services Association to take a more active role. He said the recent spate of disasters was 'the tip of the iceberg'.

Mr Holt said the association should expel or censure members 'to improve quality and value for money . . . and pre-empt the storm that will erupt if our industry is subjected to keener scrutiny'. He claimed some large consultancies overcharged and were inefficient - his company, staffed by computer sciences graduates working on bonuses, quoted pounds 200,000 for a project for which a large consultancy quoted pounds 2m.

'There is no correlation between having TickIT and being good quality,' Mr Holt says. 'Because of the way it works TickIT will lower your quality, because if staff come up with a better way of doing things, they have to be told not to do it.'

The association has accused Mr Holt of naivety. Rob Wirszycz, marketing director, says the organisation cannot legally expel members since it is a trade group covered by restrictive practices.

The body that administers TickIT, Disc - the IT arm of the British Standards Institution - defends the scheme. 'There is much evidence in the way of case studies, industrial surveys and articles to show that TickIT works,' Alison Ingleby, a consultant, says.

Tim Wickes, chief executive of CH Business Development, says that both BS 5750 and TickIT could be good for the way businesses operate. 'But any sane company when it gets new employees is going to have procedures for them,' he says. 'We've seen nothing new. This is a buzzword to package together job specs and people specs.

'It is perceived as something you can get if you have enough money (to pay consultants). BS 5750 means there has been another business for consultants. It's a case of 'here's another club and if you join it, you get more business'.'

While the controversy rages, JBA International, with its Business 400 software solution, has become the first to be awarded the British Standards Institution's Kite mark for quality under a new scheme for accounting software. The company already has BS 5750 and TickIT.

At the same time, Admiral Management Services has teamed up with a collection of interested parties, including British Rail, to establish a framework for assessment and certification of safety-related software. But many companies, both in accounting software and safety software, will never reach this stage because they cannot afford the considerable effort.

Martin Knight, founding partner of Kaliba, a small multi-disciplinary company in Bristol, has put his TickIT bid on ice, having spent pounds 10,000 to get a third of the way through the procedures. 'If BS 5750 becomes discredited, that money would be completely down the drain,' he says.

(Photograph omitted)