by Mike Lynch

It’s about time…

Nov 28, 20114 mins
IT Leadership

“Time, time, time, look what’s become of us…”. Those of you of a certain age will place this as the lyrics to ‘Hazy Shade of Winter’ from that popular ladies’ combo of the eighties, the Bangles.

The reason it springs to mind is one could be forgiven for asking the question of what’s become of us, given the extreme volatility in all matters that seems to be engulfing the world, some good, some bad.

The euro crisis, governments falling, political systems turning over, the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street protests and, on top of that, semi-natural events such as Thailand’s floods and global warming.

I was recently at a gathering of eminent economists discussing all of this. Complex analysis of the euro crisis, government sovereign debt and the failure of the European political elite were all put forward as explanations for the crisis. All made some sense.

For once, the old mathematician’s joke about economists (n economists in a room = n+1 opinions) did not hold true, and they were depressingly in agreement.

However, I remember similar post-Lehman analysis, this time around credit default swaps — mortgages sold to people with no prospects of repaying them and failures in risk management.

The symptoms are different but perhaps the patient is still ill.

At that point the chairman of the conference and editor of a famous economics magazine asked me to comment, safe in the knowledge that, true to form, I was likely to enliven the debate in a manner normally seen by dropping a moggy into a crate full of fowl.

I pulled the pin and rolled in the following grenade: what if all these things were symptoms, not causes? This time round, the patient has a rash and fever, last time they had difficulty breathing, but actually there is a fundamental, underlying cause. The infection is Time.

Our world, due to our technology, is operating faster and faster, our computers and networks, our information flows, and therefore our capital flows, are speeding up in a financial version of Moore’s Law.

The complexity of all this is increasing through more innovation: if you like, the technology tectonic plate is pulling away.

However, the human timescale plate is all but stationary: the average speed in London has been 11mph for a century, and it still takes Tim Geithner 30 minutes to get up to Manhattan in a cab and stare down the bank bosses.

Will that be quick enough next time round? We humans have only moved from three score years and 10 to four score years and 10 — not an exponential advance.

So in dealing with these faster timescales, we are getting to the point where we cannot react fast enough.

Even the idea of the nation state seems of another age now that machines can trade effortlessly across borders.

As those plates rub, we are in for a serious of quakes, one after the other: first Lehman’s, now the euro and who knows what next, but one thing is certain — there will be another quake, and another.

The room reacted: nice idea, bit of silence, bit of “Who let the nerd in?”, and then a bit of “Yes, there might just be something in this”. However the interesting thing for me came at the end of the session, when the editor came up to me and said, “You technology types think differently, I heard a similar way of thinking from Bill Gates, why do you technology lot think like this?”

It is a fascinating question and my thoughts immediately turned to the CIO. The CIO lives in this world of change; to be successful the CIO must understand and embrace this changing technology timescale, but on the other hand, is tied firmly to the human factors and, most importantly, the CIO has to pull those two together to deliver a measurable result. If the CIO fails to understand either side of the equation, technology or human, they will inevitably fail.

This may be obvious to us, but many in our institutions of civilisation such as politics and economics have not had to face this new era and can convince themselves that if they can treat the symptoms, then the patient will be well. So is there hope?

There might just be. The glimmer of light in all this is that, if you look back, the very thing that challenges our cultural systems – our technology – has a wonderful track record of saving us in the end. History is littered with predictions of doom that never came to pass as technology saved the day with a solution.

So, to end where we started with the Bangles, will the answer also be found in the ‘eternal flame’ of human innovation? Perhaps only the CIO knows.