Creating the reality of the future
the information utility
Project Management in Action
FROM THE EXECUTIVE SUITE
Thomas M. Nies
If you believe that applied knowledge is power, then education is truly our fuel for the future.
In these times, one easily understands why Charles Dickens opened his great novel, The Tale of Two Cities, with, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” However, I tend to agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson when he said, “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.” The economic and political orders worldwide are in the midst of major revolutionary cycles, with a whole new economic world order rapidly emerging. Less developed areas everywhere are now rapidly industrializing their companies; thus it is imperative that the developed nations find ways to move ever more quickly and completely into much higher value-added opportunity areas. Meanwhile, our mass production standardized economy is giving way to a new niche market, customized and individualized economy of the future.
The present turbulence and difficulty mark the stress and turmoil which accompanies all passages and transitions. Author John Naisbitt once observed that we are fundamentally moving from an auto-driven economy to a computer-driven economy. Author Harry Dent adds, “The microcomputer industry and a broad range of new niche products and services will increasingly dominate our economy in the coming decades. Microtechnologies increasingly allow us to custom design, market and produce products and services at lower cost.” He also says that productivity “will be driven by investments in flexible software and will use information as the fuel.”
In this revolutionary era, above all else, it is not the time for gradual, evolutionary improvement, with incremental gains targeted each year. That style of thinking must now give way to the necessary idea of quantum leaps, or “mega-gains.” Michael Hammer, that great proponent of reengineering, constantly reminds us that we must “obliterate, not automate.” But is obliteration enough? Surely, we must construct new methods, new mindsets and new approaches, as well. Maximum capital formation, huge production facilities, and economies of scale all were appropriate for those times past when demand exceeded supply and the management paradigm centered about the assemblyine philosophy. But how is one to operate when capital is fleet, when plants and technologies become too quickly obsolete? Clearly, the need for better and quicker information is today an imperative of great magnitude. One of the most important functions of almost any organization today has become its information systems. This is of vital importance to organizations everywhere, since it is above all else, information which provides the power to transform the way people work—and think.
Thomas M. Nies is chief executive officer of one of the world's largest privately held software companies, and has the distinction of being the longest-sewing CEO in the industry. As one of the pioneers in database technology, Nies founded Cincom in 1968 and introduced TOTAL, one of the most successful database management systems ever. Cincom has often been called “The software company with a vision, ” and Thomas M. Nies is the guiding force behind that vision.
In 1984, Nies was recognized by then-President Reagan as “the epitome of the entrepreneurial spirit of American business, ” and in 1992, was praised by The Right Honorable Sir Edward Heath, former prime minister of the U. K., at a conference in London celebrating Cincom's 20 years of European operations. Beginning in January 1994, Nies was elected to serve a three-year term on the board of directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, one of 12 regional Reserve Banks that, along with the Board of Governors in Washington, D. C., comprise the Federal Reserve System.
Mr. Nies holds a B.B.A. in marketing and an M.B.A. in finance from the University of Cincinnati.
It is now time for a complete, and some say radical, change in our thinking about computer usage and information systems implementation. Some arguably proclaim that the “information revolution” may be as important, or even more so, than was the industrial revolution. Since current business operations of all types are already so heavily dependent on existing legacy systems, it is important that we develop the ability to accelerate the pace of change without the adverse side effects of most revolutions. C. Christy, in Data Management Review, says, “Mainframe-based legacy systems that are the lifeblood of many companies are not going away as quickly as some expected. The operational integrity of mainframes are still far more attractive than the promised benefits of many [client/server options].” The idea of mainframes and proprietary technologies are entwined; therefore, it is this mainframe that is dead, even as the mainframe itself is alive and well. The mainframe fulfills a number of requirements for a large number of users in ways much better than can be satisfied by networks of loosely or tightly coupled micros and minis. Mainframes can still deliver and will almost certainly be a major part of the total solution for most large users for a long time to come.
What will replace the mainframe/proprietary paradigm will be an open paradigm that embraces both proprietary architectures, as well as other environments in an enterprise-wide environment. At Cincom, we have labeled that vision the information utility, where anything is available to any user, peer-to-peer, for any requirement, from any computer. It is where all users have a consistent, single-image system and are served as though they are the only user on the system. This information should be managed as a utility, providing as much information, data and application development as people want, with clients paying for only the information they need, and no more. Facility management companies charge by value. Why shouldn't users of software pay that way, too? This environment is available today.
Quite frankly, while the “good ole days” in many ways were easier days, there was much less opportunity then than now. The Chinese, who are sophisticated and subtle thinkers, say that chaos and opportunity are never far apart. That is precisely the case today. All times of transition are at the same time dangerous, yet wonderful times. But to seize opportunity from chaos demands the right type of action. The typical historical mistake has been to hesitate—to “wait and see.” Today, this is exactly where the danger lies. We must move to restructure our thinking and our systems. And we must move quickly. Francis Bacon was correct when he said, “Knowledge is Power.” Today, we might add that applied knowledge is power. We are on the leading edge of new technology. But without people, technology is useless. But technology is useless without people: people who are trained, not only to use new technologies, but to use them wisely. For if you believe that applied knowledge is power, then education is truly our fuel for the future.
Today, information technology has a unique opportunity and a monumental responsibility: to usher in a new paradigm. This new paradigm is one where constant and rapid change is the new order of things, and time is the new currency. Knowledge is the tool we must use to facilitate our transformation. We must make no mistake about the importance of this. It is critical to the very life of our organizations and to the quality of life of everyone connected with them. Margaret Mead may very well have been speaking of us when she said that we should “never underestimate the ability of a small dedicated group of people to change the world.” With today's computer and software technologies, it is possible for a very few to make monumental improvements for the whole organization. This is the promise and the possibility of modern information systems.
Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.
—St. Francis of Assisi
The “Information revolution” maybe as important, or even more so, than was the industrial revolution, [Therefore] it is important that we develop the ability to accelerate the pace of change without the adverse side effects of most revolutions.
PMNETwork • July 1994