Year 2000: Time to plan for the next crisis

The Office of Management and Budget recently reported that total federal spending on Year 2000 compliance has reached $5.4 billion. OMB's quarterly progress report on Year 2000 also stated that 15 agencies are behind on their projects.

While the report seems alarming, it raises other, rather important questions: Are we looking at the Year 2000 problem the right way? And haven't we seen this type of thing before?

While this current crisis deals with date fields and computer programs' inability to differentiate between 2000 and 1900, history is filled with similar crises. And just as in the past, our first response is to develop a quick fix so we can postpone addressing the real problem: managing change. Take, for example, the energy crisis in the 1970s. The price of gasoline went over a dollar a gallon for the first time. Most of us never thought that would happen. Yet all of a sudden, we were faced with not only an economic crisis but a technical one as well. Virtually every gas pump in America could not register numbers greater than 99.99 cents a gallon. The pump owners could recalibrate the pump flow meter to register the increased cost, but that jiggered fix did not solve the problem of visually registering the correct price on the pump. Over time, energy companies tried a variety of methods to solve the problem, ranging from taping the number 1 next to the decimal point to physically cutting a new opening on the pump face to add a new number field.

Changing the date fields in every computer program is a lot like cutting a new opening for a dollar figure on a gas pump. All it does is solve a short-term problem while doing nothing to solve the long-term problem of continually reinventing solutions for similar technology problems when tools to fix that problem already exist.

From the looks of it, you'd think that the turn of the century was the first time we had to manage change. But we've already reprogrammed computer systems to handle numerous changes, such as the four extra digits in ZIP codes, additional area codes and a constant stream of new regulations that affect the tax code and other financial applications. Every company, from small mom-and-pop operations to the largest multinationals, constantly updates computer systems to manage change.

And that will never change. Just as people never thought gasoline would top $1 a gallon, government information technology managers never thought most computer programs written in the 1960s and 1970s would still be running in 2000.

For some reason, the Year 2000 computer bug has become emblematic of the crisis of change. While some companies have developed new tools and techniques, there is a whole range of solutions that companies have been using to manage change that could help them solve their Year 2000 challenges. Code must be updated, data must be moved between databases, software applications must be tested -- just as they always have been. The Year 2000 is another issue that companies and their IT departments must manage. And when the Year 2000 problem is solved, another IT problem will take its place.

So what can we learn from this current crisis? Simply stated: Manage change instead of an individual issue. The Year 2000 problem has created a major hurricane of publicity, spending and hand-wringing. This storm has clouded our judgment, and instead of investing in basic tools and techniques to manage change, we have gone out and purchased specialized solutions that we likely won't need in the future. That's like preparing for a Texas twister by going out and buying fresh-cooked gourmet food. The food will do for the immediate crisis, but wouldn't it be smarter to first check your supply of canned goods and then buy more so you are prepared for the next storm too? And in many cases, the essentials are less expensive.

Most agencies are, or should be, well on their way to fixing Year 2000 problems. But the bigger question is, will they be ready for the next crisis? Instead of using the billions of dollars in Year 2000 funds to just pay for fixing millennium date-code problems, agencies should use Year 2000 expenditures to prepare for the overall management of change. Agency IT managers should take a moment to assess if the tools they are buying will help solve not only the date field issue but also other issues that affect IT operations. While fixing the Year 2000 problem, agencies also can prepare business-critical applications and data for the next crisis.

In managing change of any kind, panic and time are the enemies. Panic causes us to overlook the obvious -- the data movement tool, the application testing solution, the ongoing maintenance program -- that we successfully have used to manage changes for years. Lack of sufficient time to prepare for change causes panic. Use the Year 2000 crisis to buy yourself time to prepare for future change. With proper preparation, you can weather the storm of change instead of getting caught up in it.

-- Watson is chairman, president and chief executive officer of BMC Software Inc.

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