In the US and in industrial countries around the world, the recent economic crisis has triggered the first serious consideration of national spending priorities for more than a decade. Supposedly, every option is being explored and unfortunately, in many cases deficits are being balanced out by reduction in long-term investments in existing infrastructure. There are a few bright spots, however. For example, in the US, President Obama has included new money for high-speed rail.
But what about roads and bridges and dams? Well, things are pretty bleak. A dam safety study in 2009 showed that out of 84,000 dams listed in the database, 4,000 needed remediation and 2,000 were classified as “high-hazard,” meaning that the dam’s failure would cause loss of life. As reminders of the risk, last summer’s failure of a sludge containment dam in Hungary did enormous environmental and economic damage, as did the dam that gave way on Christmas day in 2008 in Tennessee, which released an estimated 500 million gallons of sludge and closed down the use of a nearby river. (This last one brought with it a personal note since I once lived near the small town of Kingston, where this catastrophe occurred.)
What does all this have to do with the average CIO? Well, if you’re a CIO, here’s a quick test: name your organization’s top 300 systems, including at least 20 of the most important user-developed ones. Sorry, time’s up. If the names of all of these systems didn’t roll off your tongue, you’re not alone. No major company I know of has anything close to an up-to-date inventory of its major systems, databases, and interfaces, much less the number of “mission-critical” spreadsheets, ACCESS, or 4GL (BI) systems.
Unlike the inventory of dams mentioned above, very few organizations of any size have anything like a complete inventory of their systems (critical and not), databases, or the external and internal interfaces of those systems. Indeed, the last time most large organizations had such an inventory was back in the Y2K days, and once that panic passed, those inventories were neglected or trashed.
For the long run, this is a bad trend. Remember the old saying “out of sight, out of mind”? Well, infrastructure is not sexy, and it doesn’t avail itself of short-term or inexpensive fixes. But real-world infrastructures can promote innovation, creativity, and growth. Ben Franklin, perhaps the founding father with the clearest view of the future, helped create a “postal service” infrastructure that bound the fledgling US together at a time when you could travel from Philadelphia to London more easily than you could from Philadelphia to Western Pennsylvania.
Today, in the technical press, we hear a great deal of talk about “composite” applications, but we hear little of our out-of-date core applications being replaced. Like major enhancements of highways, dams, railroads, or airports, major enhancements of our systems are required — both operational and business intelligence ones. These changes will be needed if our organizations are to be more innovative, flexible, and productive over the next decades.