Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Russian T34 tanks and the NHS IT system

Max Hotopf at idealgovernment thinks the government make too many simple things unnecessarily complicated.

"This government could learn a lot from the machine which won the Second World War, the Soviet T34 battle tank.

Whilst the Germans produced seven different tank models and 12 variants the Soviets concentrated on pushing the T34 out in tens of thousands. It wasn’t the best tank of the war - honours there probably go to the German Tiger which boasted features such as a night sight that NATO couldn’t match until the late 1960s. But the Tiger epitomised the old saying “the best is the enemy of the good” – it was vastly expensive and rather slow. The T34 was crude and uncomfortable, but it was well armoured and manoeuvrable with punchy firepower. Having one main battle tank made manufacturing simple and machines could be swiftly cannabalised in the field. The T34 did the job...

So what sort of tanks does this government produce?

Let’s look at the NHS IT system or the 15 different funding initiatives for secondary schools. Always there seems to be a delight in complexity for its own sake, a lack of any attempt to strip systems back to functional basics.

Why should the NHS IT system be quite as massively complicated as the numbers suggest? On almost any rational basis it is surely impossible to justify this level of expenditure? A T34 approach would be to take existing systems which work well at, say, GP level, and spread them around the country. A T34er would accept that integration between the GP system and the best hospital systems was less than perfect, count the cost, look at functionality and shrug the shoulder.

I can understand why spending billions on customer relationship management might make sense to a private company which faces intense competition. But why should the UK government be taking these sorts of risks with monopoly services...

Why this love of complexity? The answer is simple. Too many people have a vested interest in complex solutions – politicians because they provide prestige, the civil service because they provide careers and consultants because they provide a steady stream of income."

He's right about perspectives and agendas driving the love of complex IT projects but it was his reference to the T34 which peaked my interest because I happen to be writing about it at the moment in the draft of chapter 7 of my book. I'm not sure the T34 story will survive the final cut but I've just been making the point about running with something that is "just good enough" ("the best is the enemy of the good") in connection with the deployment of radar in the British air defence system in the run up to the war.

My colleague, Sue Holwell, has written a wonderful case study, in Chapter 5 of her book co-written with Peter Checkland, using the story of radar to illustrate the difference between information technology and information systems. The real beauty of the story is that it makes the point without having to talk about computers. Interestingly, the title of the chapter is "The Information System Which Won The War".

In terms of technology, the T34, the Spitfire, radar, the Colossus computer and the Mustang are often mentioned in the realms of machines that won the war. All of these stories illustrate the strength of coherent systems. Arguably, in the case of the Mustang, for example, it did not reach its peak as the most effective combat plane of the War until Rolls Royce liaison pilot, Ronnie Harker, flew one in 1942 and suggested its performance could be massively improved by fitting a Rolls Royce merlin engine, rather than the Allison V-1710s which it had been flying with up until that point.

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