Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Cost control

IT is not the only area where projects are in trouble according to an article in the January 2009 edition of Scientific American that arrived in my mailbox.

NASA also seems to have trouble with the Mars Science Laboratory project. According to the story costs were underestimated and unrealistic, and there seems to have been a lack of will to keep costs under control. In contrast to normal projects where you calculate a return of investment and you can find a limit to how much you should invest, i don't think it matters what the cost is in the case of the Mars mission.

With IT projects there is often no abort button easily at hand for projects going over budget. In NASA however i would guess that the situation is a bit different. When promising the moon, or Mars as in this case you may end up having to deliver at any cost. Wherther it will succeed to deliver on the promise or not we will have to wait and see.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Understanding management

According to a study management is struggling to get their message across to the people working for them in their organization. Among the around 200 mid level managers interviewed 87 % feels that the strategy is not being understood. Obviously this cause problems for the organizations probably impacting even the profitability.

One other way of interpreting this is that 13 % of the managers use normal language in stead of the normal jargon filled talk that management consultants and managers use. The study however did not present any data from which we could guess if the managers themselves understood what was being communicated. Still another possibility is that the 13 % or more of the managers have misunderstood how their people understand them and just describe the worst.

Seems like this should be a good research subject for further inquiries. For improving efficiency of management this could be useful. However, I don't think that the managers will change the way they communicate, even if this was shown to be the cause.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Efficiency of bureaucracy

Under some conditions efficiency can be impossible to achieve. For example in an article by Dr Anthony Berglas one can find the surprising fact that costs for maintaining the australian tax office hasn't changed in terms of percent of the GDP per year over the last 50 years. Sure the tax office nowadays have more computer systems. This automatization has however just increased the complexity of the tax process, not decreased the amount of human effort. 50 years ago the regulations governing taxation was one order of magnitude shorter. Same seems to have happened with banking.

I find it good to know that even bureaucracy cant grow without bounds. For a tax office budget, anything below 2% of GDP seems to be acceptable to society, and the organization will try to grow until that limit. Growing would mean adding complexity to the bureaucracy, and hence also complexity is limited. Without a limit on the complexity or too much money to spend, there will be real big failures ahead.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Weekly dose of IT related problems

According to news here in Finland every employee uses 53 minutes every week on average for solving IT related problems. Taking into account that some of us do this for work, and others even seems to work to create problems with IT i'm surprised the figure is not bigger.

The figure comes from research commissioned by Microsoft and performed by TNS Gallup in small or mid size finnish companies. The original press release can be found here, if you are interested and know finnish.

What the press release brings forward as noteworthy is that of the 22 % responders saying that they experience lots of IT related problems, being among the smallest and newest companies around, e-mail and office programs was causing most of the problems... The research however fails to state how many of those experiencing the problems use Microsoft products already or if there is any correlation.

One hour a week is reported to be a significant number. In Finnish small medium size companies that hour translates into 340 000 man days wasted per month as reported in the press release. That number seems already big and frightening, but in reality it is perhaps not all that much. 53 minutes every 5 days is 636 seconds per day, or between 10 and 11 minutes a day, that does not sound that much, or? Comparing 636 seconds to the 27 000 seconds spent at work every day is not a big deal, its just 2,4 % of the time.

Lets try to verify the calculation... Research stated that IT problems causes people to user 53 minutes every 5 days, fair enough, that would be 636 seconds per day. Assuming that every month has 21.5 working days, in reality it will vary between 19 and 23, depending on month and what kind of days off we have during a month... So, if we take 636 seconds, times 21,5 days per mont and multiplies that with 717 000 people working in the small medium size companies according to the source mentioned in the article, we get 9 804 258 000 seconds wasted per month, which sounds big. if we divide by 60 to get minutes, and further by 60 to get hours and again with 7,5 to get days i arrive at around 363 000 days wasted per month. Well probably the researcher calculated this some other assumption, perhaps taking vacations or holidays into account... Figure is well in the same ballpark.

I guess this could be compared to overlong coffee breaks, lunch breaks and other breaks with the difference that experiencing IT problems is not fun. A motivating work atmosphere was however mentioned as the most important factor making people efficient in their job for 95 %. Perhaps having long coffee breaks and lunch breaks or whatever gets the motivation into the work place is what we should consider. I guess workers simply compensate for the time taken by IT problems to some extent.
The research does not state how much of that time is unpaid overtime. Im however somehow doubting that Microsoft selling more Exchange or Office would decrease the time spent dealing with IT related problems in small or midsize companies. I feel the real issue here is the frustration and demotivation experiencing IT problems is having, not the time spent as such.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Estimating risk

Humans are not very good at estimating risks. Our life seems to be more focused on estimating medium size risks such that we need to avoid every day. Small risks can be seen as unproportionally big, or big risks can be seen as negligible.

Risk of events occurring more or less frequent is seen out of proportion. A risk occurring with low frequency will however be common if the number of possible situations where the risk can occur is very big.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Ending project failures

Seems like the idea of killing off projects looking like failures early on seems to be catching on according to recent blog entries like this one from Michael Krigsman.

Cancellation should however not be the primary mechanism for controlling projects. Every project should first be designed to succeed. For some projects only constraint given is a time table and a wish to either succeed or fail on time. Applying a cancellation to a poorly initiated project like this may not be the right thing to do.

Just because killing off a project was the right decision at one time does not mean that it is right to kill off every project in trouble.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Doing what you know or doing what is right

Often people do what they are used to do, without any reflection. If it has worked once people tend to hope it will work again. Stopping to think and gathering and looking at evidence is often ignored in favor of doing the normal thing. Since conditions will vary, what was done previously may not be the right thing to do.

When you are hired you are asked for experience, measured as number of years working with a given technology, indicating that you are expected to do the same over and over again what you are experienced at, regardless of what the conditions are.

There is also a second kind of experience, where you have seen lots and lots of different things and you know that doing what you are used and expected to is going to go in the wrong direction. There may not always be very much you can do the improve the situation.

A better approach would be to practice an evidence based approach. If there are no evidence, you need to first run an experiment in order to obtain the data needed to make a sound decision.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Efficient architecture

Architecture should not only state how parts relate to each other. Architecture should also describe the forces at work and how the particular tradeoff manifested in the selected architecture has been reached. Further more, information on what options has been discarded and why can be more valuable for understanding the solution than any description of relations.

In my opinnion architecture is about communication of the desired and undesired facets of our IT systems. A obscure arbitrary stack of boxes in a powerpoint picture does not realy provide all that much insight.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Presenting numbers

According to an article in Journal of Extension numbers are understood differently based on how they are presented. Apparently percentages or simple frequencies (1 out of 10) are more intuitively understood than a large absolute frequency (or number like 5 million each year) even though the information is the same. For indicating a small thing an absolute frequency will appear greater in magnitude. Hence an absolute frequency may appear more persuasive.

Personally i prefer using graphs which can convey both kind of information at the same time, as long as the graphs does not get too crowded or too simplistic.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Benefits from ignorance

There seems to be more to the saying "No news is good news" than one would first imagine. In a recent paper titled "Influence through ignorance" two researchers named Isabelle Brocas and Juan D. Carrillo suggest that peoples decisions can be influenced simply by controlling the availability of further information. When no new information becomes available current views will hold, even though absence of recent information should signal caution. The decision maker wishing to influence (or sales man?) can then, when he has the suitable data to verify his view, simply stop investigations generating more data. If generating the data is expensive, complex or in some other way highly regulated, the chances are good that the decision maker/sales man will get away with it.

I guess this can also help explain some reasons why some poorly suitable IT systems are obtained by customers. Since NDA:s (non disclosure agreements) ensure that information is not freely passed on to the public only the message from the vendor is publicly available, and it is most certainly not in the vendors own interest to make negative information available for potential customers. On the buyer side all information can be argued to be valuable, since it gives the rational buyer more sound picture of the product to base the decision on. Some buyers will choose to disregard all information and just go for the decision, like a predator attacking a prey, but nothing can help them. We others can perhaps better try to estimate what the "silence" or "no news" being given us means with this model in mind.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Quantum computing

In the recent issue of Scientific American Scott Aaronson has an article presenting the features of quantum computers. It turns out that although there are certain things that such a computer would be able to do very efficiently it will not be able to solve all NP or NP Complete problems.

Factoring large numbers is however something a quantum computer could do efficiently. The author believes that this will be primarily application of quantum computers will be in physics for making more precise calculations of quantum states. Hope he is right, but i fear that the big monetary rewards for cracking cryptographic secrets used in e-commerce and banking may well be the target in the long run. Once a commercial quantum computer device would reach the market it could render current cryptographically secured data open.

I might be too pessimistic. I remember discussing this with a colleague involved with banking systems at a conference just after reading the paper by Peter Shor around year 2000. My colleague did not think that it posed any real threat although I'm not fully convinced that he ever understood the implications. I would however hope that my e-commerce transactions are kept safe in the future also no matter what devices become available.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Aquiring knowledge outside the box

For many people it seems to be difficult to pay attention to information that is not matching their existing beliefs. Even if you are able to search for anything and find an abundance of correct information on the internet you may simply choose to ignore what is not according to your view.

Researchers from University of New South Wales have found that providing people with the right information on its own does not seem to be enough. As one of the researchers, UNSW Professor Enrico Coiera states: “Even if people read the right material, they are stubborn to changing their views." The study was conducted in the area of health, but i would agree that this is true in most disciplines, especially in IT.

In order to avoid being stubborn we need to constantly question our beliefs, and keep an open mind towards new ideas, but evaluate them in a skeptic way. The real difficult part is however to be able to know what to look for if your beliefs and world view is biased. Only remedy i can think of is to obtain and interact with information from very many disciplines and views, even if the information is of no apparent use, and this way at least become biased in very many ways.