Sunday, March 30, 2008

Driving Out Fear

As I have argued for some time now in this blog, the digital divide is not there, it's here. To think that the failure of the digital revolution is in the fact that people in Zimbabwe don't know how to use a computer, or God forbid, don't have access to the Internet is silly.

The failure of the digital revolution lies in the fact that it's just another toy with which we've amused ourselves, which creates more problems than solutions, and which allows us to get side -tracked by problems that are never the real problem. Mainly we get totally obsessed about tools. Companies would be more profitable if the programmers only knew their jobs, and programmers would design better programs if they only had better tools, and after all the finger pointing is over then we outsource the whole shebang to India. And while sometimes they can do it either cheaper or better, more often than not the problems now surface some place else, so then we can bring the whole operation back inside, because new management issues simply make it too expensive to outsource and do it cheaper. Or we try to solve it with a new class of "legitimate" indentured servants with H1B visas.

In the '80's when I at times played an active role in corporate IT development, and became de facto the chief architect of strategic systems for my company, which was an international shipping company, my heros were EWD, WED, and WW, or in full, Edsger W. Dijkstra, W. Edwards Deming, and Walter Wriston.

EWD surely was one of the fathers of structured programming, and of the opinion that programming was a matter of applied mathematics, and that sloppy thinking was the main problem. Undoubtedly, he made a huge and very valuable contribution to the field. He was revered by his students at UT.

I used some amount of structured methodology to good effect.

WED for me hit the nail on the head with a lot of his writing and the methods he thought, and somehow I knew that the essence of it all was his insight that the first obstacle was to "Drive out fear!" And it is also the final obstacle, for fear causes us to design failure in, for failure subconsciously equals job security, since most people view themselves as problem fixers, "fixers," and thus dependent on an unending supply of problems.

Finally for me came Walter Wriston, and his seminal insights in the meaning of information in society and in business, starting from the powerful conclusion that Citibank was in the information business, not the money business. An obituary by Steve Forbes is telling. His writing on The Twilight of Sovereignty was remarkable, given the year, 1992, and it had been prefigured by an essay in Foreign Affairs years before. His insights were equally valuable as applied to management, for he saw that people building positions based on hogging information (always based on fear!), were their own worst enemies in the information economy. Which was not to say they'd stop doing it. Thirty years after Wriston put an internal revolution in motion, Citibank was still teaching clueless exectutives not to do so, but unable to give them reason to stop doing it, as the short term success of information hoggers was as clear as the certainty of their long term failure.

In my own work, I had found that I could sometimes successfully bring to bear the insights and methods of consent management, developed in Holland by Dr. Gerard Endenburg, see and

For some time I did some management consulting based on Endenburg's methodology, even though I did not like his name for it. His method is definitely part of the new economy solutions bin. But for me it came up short, as it still only addresses the problem of fear circumstantially, by changing conditions, not the cause.

And of course the cause is in the one place where we never want to look in this society: inside. Thus the issue can only be addressed from the top. Only if we do that is there any hope at all to change the games of hide and seek, which perennially surface in software engineering in massive project failures, which probably happen in 2/3rds of the large software projects. So even with the newest technologies, the only hope is in truly addressing fear in the organization, and that means leading by example, from the top down, and allowing solutions to surface. And you cannot do that without also changing the form in which the organization operates, but with todays communications tools there are no limits in what you can do. But without addressing the causes, better tools, or better working conditions, outsourcing or no, we'll just be moving the problem around, and doing nothing else but the proverbial rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Copyright © 2008 Rogier F. van Vlissingen. All rights reserved.

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