Green Screens and the Austin Allegro – Some Things Got Better!

Through August, we’re going to be running some of our “greatest hits” from what is almost seven years of Spend Matters UK/Europe.  We’ll keep bringing you the latest important news and opinion that you need to know during this month, but frankly less happens for us to comment on – and yes, Nancy and I will be taking some holiday (no, not together). My summer holiday is pretty much Reading Festival to be honest as my wife and I hate the sun and sand thing, preferring loud music or skiing. Anyway, this was first published in late 2010, but the message still seems relevant today …

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I learnt to programme on the Cambridge University Maths Department mainframe computer in 1977.  It had the distinction of having a totally unique programming language, used on no other computer in the entire world. The Department was quite proud of this (which says something about the attitude of the Maths Department, which I remember with an almost total lack of fondness).  I, on the other hand, couldn't help thinking that this made the hours sitting there somewhat wasted; time that could have been better spent on the football field, in the bar – or pretty much anywhere to be honest.  Even learning something useful.

Then, after graduating, one of my early jobs at Mars was writing a new computerised factory costing system, which was more fun, as I could stay late and play a very early version of a computer game – mainframe based, green screen and totally text based.

“What do you want to do?”

Type “Shoot the two headed bull with the crossbow”...(wait five minutes)

“You have missed and been eaten by the giant orc.  Go back to step 3”.

Not exactly Line of Duty 3.

But despite this early exposure, I didn't sustain any deep interest in technology, although I was always interested in what it could do for me as a manager.  But, a few years later, I got deeply suspicious of the ERP business case I was asked to sign as the CPO of large organisations where the entire investment (HR, Finance, Procurement) was to be justified by “3% savings on £1 billion procurement spend”.

How exactly was that going to happen then? And couldn't we achieve that with better governance and a few more skilled procurement folk – for a fraction of the cost? And why did I have to express complex services we were buying in 'units' with a 'cost per unit', a 'delivery date' and a 'stock level' when that clearly made no sense at all?

Anyway, since I've been blogging, one thing has struck me probably above all else; and that is how quickly technology aimed at our profession has improved in the last ten years or so. Cars provide a good analogy.  I remember when some cars were really, really bad. Choosing a model was fraught with danger, particularly if it hadn't been on the market for long.  Would it turn out to be another Austin Allegro – or the Fiat my Father bought in the late sixties, of which my only memory is sitting in it, in the driveway, with my father under the bonnet.  I have no memory of it ever moving, although I suppose it must have occasionally ...

But now, there is hardly a 'bad' car on the market. Sure, some are better than others, but nothing compares to the disasters of the 60s and 70s.

And it strikes me that technology – and I'm thinking software particularly here – is much the same. Anything that gets to market and is seriously promoted is almost certainly pretty good. For most procurement related needs, there is a good choice of products; that doesn't mean you don't need to select carefully, understanding your needs clearly and looking for what best meets them.  And of course there are a wide range of commercial models, level of services provided alongside and so on. But your chances of buying something that is fundamentally rubbish is these days thankfully low.

So when people complain that everything is worse than it used to be, remind them of the Austin Allegro, Little Jimmy Osmond, and text-based dungeons and dragons!

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