Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Critical Success Factors In Buying and Running a Store #1

With regards to data processing, Dr. James Martin* warned us: “There are backlogs of several years; it takes too long to build systems and the cost is too high; the difficulties of maintenance are outrageous; management cannot obtain information from computers when needed; tape and disk libraries are a mess of redundant, chaotic data; many programs are fragile ‘spaghetti code’; and problems in data processing prevent the rapid introduction of new business procedures.”

Sound familiar? The speed in which modifications can be made to a system is directly proportional to the success or failure of an enterprise, and the more things change, the greater the problems become. As we move toward a high level of automation, we are seeing changes in business requirements occurring literally by the day. Complex systems, which can adapt quickly to changing needs are becoming  an exceedingly important strategic asset of a corporation.

As we employ computer networks (such as the Internet) to link to suppliers, headquarters, and customers, time for decision-making is short, and it gets shorter with every passing day. Software providers cannot keep up. Upgrades to software take time, and time is something we have so little of. Before database designers and programmers can make changes, they not only need to know what changes need to be made, but how changes to one process affects other processes in the system. 

Here’s an example:  Back in the 80s, we began pulling data from one customer’s automated fueling site. Everything worked perfectly for six months. And then, one day I received a frantic call from a customer who had just printed statements to send to his customers. He had become so accustomed to several years of having no problems, he neglected to notice that at some point in the middle of the month, the computer program we sold him started charging customers exorbitant fees for a single gallon of gasoline, incurring millions of dollars in charges on each purchases. The problem was traced back to an upgrade to the pump controller at the site, where the decimal place on the price per gallon had been moved several digits to the right, making a $1.299 per gallon purchase, $12,990,000 per gallon, and a purchase of 20 gallons, resulted in a customer charge of $259,800,000.

As Dr. Martin said, “Humans can write music, start wars, build cities, create art, fall in love, go to the moon, dream of colonizing the solar system, but cannot write computer code guaranteed to be bug free”. Changes outside of the realm of our control sometimes produce disastrous consequences.

As we move from mass markets to precision markets, we will… we must evolve toward code written specifically for an enterprise. There is no simple solution that supports a general type of business. We are all individuals with specific needs and unique management styles, and we cannot perform at our best while forced to using a generic solution to our problems.

These rules were written decades ago, before the emergence of networking, client/server technology, and the acceptance of the Internet by retail organizations. Having custom systems was temporarily put on hold, as businesses began to embrace packaged software to run on small inexpensive computers. All the while, our trading partners and larger competitors continued to maintain and upgrade ‘legacy code.’ As we are compelled to integrate our systems and form new, more profitable relationships, we are seriously handicapped and unable to function in a more complicated and more competitive environment.

*James Martin (1933) is a British Information Technology consultant and author, who was nominated for a Pulitzer prize for his book, The Wired Society: A Challenge for Tomorrow (1977).

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