The real consequence of Moore’s Law is that determined, creative people are enabled to endlessly redraw the technical world and others, consequently, the business world. There can be no stability yet people find it hard to endlessly re-calibrate their priorities to timescales determined by the near exponential tick-tock of Intel co-founder Moore’s clock.

I did not realise that when I was parachuted into the IT world in 1993 as Group VP IT for ICI. Taking a business-minded view of my inheritance, I was dismissive of much of what I saw. Fifteen years on, I am in the mood to pay a positive tribute to three change makers who opened my eyes to a key reality.

The computing revolution came to ICI by business-driven stealth through the 1960s and 1970s. Developing sets of technical tools were taken up and exploited in-house. Early supplier relationships developed between the commercial and accounting fraternity and IBM, and between the production and technical divisions and Digital.

My first change maker was ICI’s initial Group VP IT, appointed in 1983 with the remit to bring coherence to the mishmash of computing facilities and data networks. To deliver this objective he was given monopoly powers as the sole internal supplier of these infrastructural services.

He delivered coherence well within the decade, with major cost benefits to the business divisions and to ICI’s bottom line. In a Europe of national telecoms monopolies, he negotiated bandwidth deals with which he built ICI’s own high-productivity data networks and, setting data processing prices ‘location-independent’, he consolidated the myriad divisional processing centres into fewer world-class facilities. The divisions kept their freedom to create apps relevant to their particular businesses, but the processing/network infrastructural capabilities that supported them were company-wide. An early corporate version of the cloud, if you like.

To complete the achievement, he interlinked the document handling and messaging software then in use by the Digital fraternity (All-in-One) and the IBM fraternity (Profs) into a single company-wide precursor to email (Electronic Document Transfer, or EDT).

My second change maker was the lead member of the Group VP IT’s team. If ICI had its own early version of the cloud, then this man ensured that it was operationally totally reliable, with a capacity that was there to meet all needs at all times. ICI prided itself on its manufacturing professionalism and here was the manufacturing ethos transposed into operation of the datacentre and the data network. To build client confidence, such excellence is obligatory: he delivered it with vigour and success through the 1980s and into the early 1990s.

But the tick-tock of Moore’s clock shifted the ground beneath his feet before the Eighties were out. The volume server and the desktop emerged, infiltrated and allowed the divisions to escape the central monopoly which was, as monopolies always are, expensive. I arrived in 1993 to read strategy papers that talked of ‘recapturing the desktop’. A young German venture, SAP, had come to prominence with its ERP offering, and flushed with the benefits of standardisation through centralisation in infrastructural services, those 1993 strategy papers proposed a wall-to-wall SAP policy for ICI.

And so to the third of my change-makers, who was CIO of one of ICI’s oldest divisions through the 1990s.

He was not hostile to the corporate, but determined to ensure its infrastructural services were cost-competitive. He was also determined to ensure that the ERP solutions adopted by his businesses were tightly aligned to their particular business needs and tightly cost-controlled. SAP was neither. When, in response to the rapid growth of the local server component to the ICI infrastructural cloud, I promoted Lotus Notes as the successor to EDT, he blocked its adoption on grounds of cost – and indeed Lotus Notes used purely as an email service is a costly venture.

The tick-tock of Moore’s clock demands endless nimbleness in change management, both in the technology and in the business, but one core reality rules. Underlying infrastructural capabilities must be managed, even as the technology shifts, with high reliability and robustness, high asset productivity, high security and very tight control of cost. Front-line capabilities must be moulded to, and responsive to, the specifics and requirements of the business they serve.

I suspect that this reality ultimately dictates two very different vendor business models – the utility merging into the cloud, and the specialist with deep business intimacy with specific verticals. And the nimbleness demanded by Moore’s Law suggests to me that these two very different vendor business models require two very different types of companies to deliver them. No one vendor can encompass both sustainably in the face of the endless tick-tock of Moore’s clock.

About the author

Richard Syles was vice president of IT at ICI in the 1990s and is now a consultant

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