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Summary and Comments

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1997-07-01 00:00:00


We Can't Go Back to Manually Controlled Systems


If computers go down, can we hire people to do manually what the computers used to do? In such fields as pipeline transmission of oil and natural gas, we had better hope so, but I have real doubts that this is feasible. In fields like electricity generation, forget it. In railways, it cannot be done if the old manual switching devices have been removed. Besides, where are trained people available to come in, literally overnight, to run highly complex systems -- life-and-death systems? You want to try to run a nuclear power station on manual controls?

Who will design a manual override system? How could it be thoroughly tested before the computers fail? A company would have to pay for two parallel systems of management and control. Besides, middle management has been fired. The managers are long gone. They aren't coming back.

In any case, there is no way that businesses and governments can hire enough people to write checks manually. Think of Medicare: a billion claims a year. The computers have to get all of these right. If they can't, then why bother to verify anything? No manual system will be able to verify the claims. But to allow noncompliant machines to write checks is a sure road to bankruptcy. It is also a sure road to busy circuits and paralyzed staff, since half the checks will be for too little. The callers will jam up the system. No large system will survive the busy circuits problem.

Dan Steinberg makes the matter clear in this response to an assertion that businsesses need to have manual back-up systems ready to go. Not possible, says Steinberg. I agree with him. Where I disagree is his suggestion that there are firms that are putting the finishing touches on their code. Even if there were, which I doubt, they have not yet tested that code. When they do, it will be back to the drawing board.

* * * * * * * * *

Date: Mon, 30 Jun 1997 17:14:37 -0400 (EDT) Subject: Manual Processes (was RE: Cheating Father Time) Date: Sat, 28 Jun 1997 11:27 From: Dan Steinberg Reply-To:

Ed [ ] wrote:

Such manual contingencies do not need to be in place for everything -- but they should be for applications that are absolutely critical to the enterprise continuing to be able to carry out its mission. Incidentally, to put on my auditor hat, this is the sort of thing that Y2K auditors look for. It would be normal to ensure such manual contingencies for critical applications are in place.

While Ed puts on his auditor's hat, let me bring up a disturbing possibility. Consider that your organization has been downsized (right-sized, gutted, etc.) You have all these wonderful computer systems that permit you to do "more with less" because your organization has cut out the unnecessary steps during re-engineering and automated as much as possible. "Now one person does the work of 10!!!" your managers proclaim from the rooftops.

Just what kind of manual system can you bring back for the mission-critical systems in these cases? Re-do your business processes and hire back all the donwsized people? Is HR ready for that on such short notice? Do you have space for these people anymore? A properly downsized operation probably has made arrangements to decrease square footage (except if the firm is in a really low-rent district). Even if you have the place, do you have time to train people, especially for a contingency? Do you even have the time to re-re-engineer your business process? It's a necessary step, because you have to be sure that your business hasn't changed significantly in the interim. Imagine putting in a manual process that missed one or two new essential steps....

I suggest that this would be a very expensive, time-consuming operation to consider just for a contingency plan. Such energy would probably be better spent on triage and doing 'whatever it takes' to get the mission-critical systems to work in time. Anything else is poor deployment of resources at this time and nobody want to do that or be seen doing that right now.

Seems to me that I should put on my litigation hat while Ed puts on his auditor's hat. Actaully, it's way too hot in Ottawa to wear hats these days.

Bottom Line: I don't think any organization that is worried about making it in time will have the resources to put a manual system in place on a contingency basis. The organization that could do it is the one that is putting finishing touches on the code right now.

Dan Steinberg

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