Chapter Nine: Now We are Forty

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During the lifetime of the Real Time Club, the social, political and computing landscape in Britain has changed beyond recognition.

Attlee’s welfare state has grown to embrace the health, housing and subsistence needs of a population that has, in turn, expanded by twenty per cent. Growth in Britain’s finance industry fuelled a credit boom which information technologies supported with the development of the credit card, enabling people in all socio-economic groups to ‘have it all and have it now’, confident in the knowledge that the state safety net will support them into old age.

The resulting culture of consumerism is driving demand for constant innovation and cost reduction across all products and services, which continues to drive innovation in information and communication technologies. Organisations have become more agile and value networks more creative as product cycles have halved every five years for the past twenty years.

Just as the Real Time Club warned, the chronic lack of support for entrepreneurship from both government and the private investment sector drove many promising new ideas from British shores to be exploited in other countries. Acknowledging that despite Britain’s excellence in scientific research, the country’s record at translating the fruits of the laboratory into commercial products has been well below that of other developed nations, the government recently introduced its Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004 – 2014 to try to redress the problem.

Meanwhile, increasing domestic labour costs pushed many of the traditional manufacturing industries to lower cost economies, which are gathering steam as a consequence. Developing and emerging economies already account for one third of global high technology exports, and are growing fast. Countries such as China and India each produce eight to ten times more skilled graduates than the UK, and investment in both R&D and production facilities in those countries is growing rapidly.

Despite these challenges, as the RTC was celebrating its fortieth anniversary in 2007, the UK was enjoying its longest period of economic expansion on record. The employment vacuum left by the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in mining and manufacturing has been filled with the rapid development of knowledge-based service industries, many of which rely on the very telecommunications infrastructure that the Real Time Club argued for so passionately in 1968.

The service sector now accounts for approximately seventy-five per cent of the UK economy, which enjoys the fifth largest trade surplus on service exports in the world. The country’s leading position in financial services persuaded many major organisations to locate near the London investment markets, and supported the growth of a highly respected business services industry.

London is once again the place to be. Favourable tax treatment has attracted the mega-rich from around Europe, and the combination of a generous welfare system and sustained economic growth has created a net inward migration of job seekers in excess of 100,000 per year.

Productivity is still an issue. While the UK enjoys one of the highest employment rates in the developed world, the productivity of its workers ranks below France, Germany, and the US. Combined with the competitive challenges from developing nations, this issue highlights Britain’s on-going need for the improvements in education that the Real Time Club argued for throughout its history.

Ironically, having resisted change and the technology that delivers it for so long, the government has had to adopt both over the last ten years in an effort to manage its burgeoning responsibilities. The Internet is now the favoured delivery point for many government services, and ‘joined up government’ is the concept driving the development of monolithic systems projects to share information and streamline processes across the various service agencies.

Technology Shake-up

As envisioned by Real Time Club members at their first Hastings weekend seminar, the rapid decline in the cost of computing power and digital memory has made electronic technologies virtually ubiquitous in the developed world. Hardware is routinely upgraded in order to keep abreast of the latest advances in power and speed required to run ever more unwieldy software applications. Microprocessors have become the brains that operate everything from space shuttles to the domestic toaster.

The relatively low cost of computing means that it no longer confers competitive advantage to business users. Innovation in both hardware and software is easily reproduced, giving a very short window of exclusivity in which to harvest returns on investment in development and marketing. As a result, organisations must look for new avenues to competitive advantage through the business processes that operate around their information and communication systems.

Computer technologies have given rise to electronically-enabled business transactions that are changing lives, from giving artisans in developing countries direct access to global markets, to providing homebound people with opportunities for work and independent living. Global communications facilities are changing lives in other ways, too, by facilitating the movement of jobs around the world in search of lower cost, skilled workforces.

The environment for research and the exploitation of knowledge is still challenging in the UK. In its paper on the Science and Innovation Investment Framework, the government acknowledges that public investment in science declined during the 1980’s and 1990’s. Measures have been taken to reverse that trend, including the liberalisation of laws governing private investment as put forward by the Real Time Club, and a tax credit scheme introduced in 2000 to stimulate business support for R&D. UK scientists continue to be widely respected, however, and are making significant contributions to work in areas such as the quantum computing project that was promoted by RTC.

A New Breed of Computer Professional

The group of twelve who met for dinner forty years ago and ended up forming the Real Time Club, were inventors and entrepreneurs at the leading edge of an emerging technology. Each one had a vision of how these new machines and communications capabilities could change the world – for the better. They were full of ideas for new applications, and mired in the difficulties of making things happen within a world rooted in older technologies and social orders.

Once the systems had been proven, however, these visionaries were moving on to the next big idea. As early as the first Hastings weekend in 1975 members of the Real Time Club were lamenting the ‘humdrum reality’ of everyday computing. It is that reality, however, that drives our business processes today.

These business processes are designed and implemented by people, not computers, and managing them calls for a whole new skill set in the modern IT professional. Where once the computer department was the fiefdom of technologists who spoke in languages unintelligible to the rest of the organisation, employers are now looking to the IT team to deliver real business value through the expert management of relationships with users, suppliers, regulators and other partners.

Organisations have grown to understand the value of the information their technology enables them to gather and manage, but so have a new class of criminal minds. As more and more sensitive data about an organisation’s commercial activities and the personal affairs of its customers resides on computer databases, the threat of theft and misuse of that information has spawned the development of new industries in data security and risk management.

These radical changes in the industry have shifted the focus from entrepreneurial to managerial skills. Today’s IT Director is responsible for data security, business continuity, compliance with an ever increasing set of regulations, and managing the organisational change that accompanies IT projects – which leaves little time to invent something totally new.

That is not to say that there are no frontiers left. The challenges today are about applying existing systems capabilities better, faster and cheaper, with fool-proof security built in and happy people implementing well designed business processes around them. More and more, in the public eye, the challenge is simply to deliver larger and more complex new systems in less time and with less money.

The Ever Changing Real Time Club

The activities of the Real Time Club, as it contemplates its forty-first year, mirror the divergence of technological innovation from the broadening managerial role demanded of today’s IT sector.

In support of the next information technology revolution (following computers, PC’s, and the Internet), the Leading Edge Caucus continues its work to stimulate and promote the development of quantum computing capabilities in the UK.

In 2003 the Caucus also worked with the Royal Institution in London to develop a debate on ‘Sentient Computing’, and hosted a talk by Baroness Susan Greenfield, Professor of neuro-pharmacology at Oxford University, on the subject, ‘Can Computers help us understand consciousness?’

That same year, the Club launched a new initiative to identify the technical and managerial risks its members foresaw in the coming year. Named the ICT Banana Skins Survey, the project was patterned on a similar study undertaken by the CSFI (Centre for the Study of Financial Innovation) for the Banking industry.

Close to 30 risks were identified in the first report, in which they were classified by severity and likelihood of occurring, the list, which follows, reflects the topics of debate at Real Time Club dinners in the years to come:

–    Concealment of attacks

–    Phishing

–    Unexpected attacks

–    Cyber terrorism

–    National Grid fails

–    Data protection too onerous

–    Offshore outsourcing hits UK

–    Users vs IT professionals

–    Personal ID card fails

–    SPAM halts the Internet

–    Hackers unite

–    Extra-territorialism

–    Disaster recovery found wanting

–    Disgruntled IT employee

–    Non-resilient systems

–    IT governance

–    Copyright law litigation

–    System suppliers in court

–    IPR Enforcement Directive

–    Systems demographics disasters

–    Wireless systems setback

–    Websites damage brands

–    SCO suit succeeds

–    The Disappearing IT Director

–    Knowledge economy fails

–    Legacy systems halt

–    Outsourcing put on hold

–    European Software Licensing

–    Drive by wire accidents

Real Time Club

ICT Banana Skins 2004

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