25 - THE BARGE POLE SYNDROME
by BERNARD A HODSON
My next job was a management job in which I was to help a UK company recently moved to Canada get established in its data processing activity. It had taken over an ailing Canadian firm which was in very bad shape, not just financially but also in its data processing operation, which was being done mainly in a service bureau located in the United States. People I knew thought I was very foolish to tackle the job but I saw it as an interesting challenge.
However, if I were trying to concoct a story to illustrate the effect of poor and inept senior management on its data processing activity, I could not come close to matching this one, which happened in real life. Truth can be stranger than fiction and I can vouch for the authenticity of this unbelievable saga.
The British firm, in typical English fashion, sent over a team totally inexperienced in takeovers, who assumed that "what worked in the UK should definitely work in the colonies". The tale of blunders made and opportunities lost would make a story in itself, but this article confines itself to the data processing aspects.
Prior to the take over the Canadian company had received proposals for the installation of computer equipment from two manufacturers. One, that took into account the true workload, was somewhat more expensive than the second. The latter claimed that the computer proposed was capable of doing everything that the company needed over the next several years, including all the work currently being done on a service bureau in the United States (who were using a computer system many times more powerful). The manufacturer made these statements while frankly admitting in their proposal that they were unsure of what was being done in the United States.
A quick calculation by any knowledgeable person would have shown that at least four and possibly five computers of the size being offered would be needed to do the existing workload, let alone that of the future. Along with this the computer manufacturer laid out a grandiose development plan for bringing work "in house", but omitted to allow enough computer memory, or scheduled time other than on an overnight shift, to allow any development work to take place. Their report was also full of contradictions.
The document had been sent to senior computer management in the UK, along with a recommendation from a member of the Canadian company (who had no computer experience) that the cheaper one be chosen. Without any serious study of the proposal, and little knowledge of the Canadian needs, the cheaper machine was approved by UK management.
Having ordered the wrong computer to do the job they then decided to hire a director to organise things, who arrived two months before the computer was due to be delivered.
I should not have taken the job, in retrospect, but considered the total situation such a mess that it constituted a challenge to put it right. Some consultant friends said they would not touch that company with a barge pole, but I decided to try to make it go anyway. I found, on arrival, that no planning had been done to house the computer, neither was any work load planned for the machine. Apparently such things hadn't been considered important by the proposal reviewers in the UK.
This situation frustrated me and I asked if I could replace the inadequate equipment with some new technology computers recently announced, and if I could sign a letter of intent to that effect, common practise in Canada. "Oh, no, we don't do things like that in Britain" the group in the UK said, "it would also be embarrassing to us with our UK management. Carry on soldiering".
Things went well for a week or two and then the tape drives supplied to us with the new computer went awry, the engineers being unable to identify the reason. The manufacturer's engineers frittered around for three months and only after high level intervention were the tape drives replaced. At this point I was reprimanded by the UK management for still wanting to get rid of an obvious lemon. "Three hundred and fifty hours of down time in ten months does seem rather high" they said, "but let's give them another chance. It would be too embarrassing to us in the UK if we changed. Keep on soldiering".
I had prepared a three year plan which, under normal circumstances, could have been achieved. When the British based management questioned why it was behind schedule they could not understand how having a computer that was always breaking down, and that did not have enough memory to allow development to take place, should affect the schedule. It had to be explained to them in simple English (it was doubtful they understood long English words) that production took priority and that, with a machine that constantly failed, production was always trying to catch up, to the detriment of development.
The imported management couldn't understand why their reports were continuously late, even though they refused to accept the remedies proposed, of going to another manufacturer for the computer, to a service bureau in the meantime for development, replacing the current computer lemon, doing only remote job entry work at this time with a cheaper and more reliable piece of equipment. "This was not possible, it would be too embarrassing to their future careers in the UK to say that they had made a mistake".
As part of the three year plan it was deemed prudent to install a mini computer for the Western Canadian operations, and an evaluation took place as to which unit might be most suitable. A British manufacturer was chosen as the best of the bidders. This was rejected because the British home group did not have British equipment and again it could be too embarrassing for them to go that way. A second study was demanded and again the British mini computer was deemed the best for the job.
The home office people then asked for a third study to be made and again the British mini computer was superior to all the other bidders. At this the British based management became very angry and virtually directed what should be selected, ordering another study (they simply were not interested in what was best for the Canadian company).
This idiotic nonsense from the home office continued. They were in the process of developing a major computer system to be ready for UK operations, hopefully, in 1982. It had already been delayed twice. Without any study of the Canadian operation they insisted than in 1983 this software package would be installed in Canada, after the package had been tried in the UK, and that no further Canadian software development should take place.
It had already been shown to them that there were alternate ways of fulfilling the Canadian requirement, that would cut the operational deficit for the company in the years before 1983. The British management in Canada were powerless to do anything about it, being more content to play UK politics than to help the Canadian operation extract itself from its deficit position.
This management had no concept of Canadian needs, or of Canadian business practise. It attempted to put in to practise things that worked in Britain without any thought being given to whether or not it was suitable for Canada. Moreover, use of computers in Canada at that time, particularly in the use of on-line systems, was ahead of anything done by the head office group in England, so that if I had asked staff to go back to the computer dark ages, as then practised in the UK, they just would not have stayed with the company. In particular, as it happened, the British head office suggested that all the development work take place on the midnight shift. How ludicrous could they be!
It was obvious that I and the company head office were incompatible, so that I negotiated an exit. Following my exit I wrote an article about my experiences, which was published, without the name of the company being divulged, in the UK "Guardian" newspaper. I learned later, from a member of the company Board who was friendly with my sister, that the Board was furious with the article, even though their name was not mentioned, and considered Court action. The boss I had in Canada later became the head of the UK operation.