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8 March 2005

Computers are simple

By Andrew Clifford

Computers remember, calculate and communicate. They are valuable because they are quicker, more accurate or cheaper than people. Sometimes they even make the infeasible possible. But people often claim computers can do things they can't. We need a simple way of analysing claimed benefits to see if they are real.

To start getting better value from IT, we need to go back to basics. A computer is a machine that can:

  • Remember any information that can be encoded digitally: numbers, words, pictures, sound, and video.
  • Perform calculations.
  • Communicate to and from its users, and to and from other computers.

Computers add value because they are quicker, more accurate or cheaper than people at remembering, calculating and communicating. For example, an accountancy package remembers the current state of accounts and calculates the new state based on transactions communicated to it, which removes the need for armies of clerks.

Computers can also provide second-order benefits when they make the infeasible possible. For example, an ecommerce web site allows a company to communicate its products to customers all over the world, which would not be feasible without computers.

Second-order benefits are still based on the underlying capabilities of the computers. The ecommerce site is beneficial because it makes the infeasible possible by communicating so much quicker, better or cheaper than people could.

This type of analysis can break down sales messages. One IT product claimed it would "transform your corporate culture". To see if this claim is valid, we need to ask, "What does this system remember, calculate or communicate, and how does that transform corporate culture?" If we can't answer this, the claim is false.

This analysis also helps to separate your ability from the capability of the computer system.

A CAD program advertises that it will "let you design in 2D and 3D". Really? A CAD program can remember my design and the graphics it should use to represent it. It can calculate what my 3D design looks like from any 2D viewpoint. It can communicate my design back as drawings, and manage changes to the design. But I can't use it to design a gearbox, because I'm not an engineer. The computer system may be a great help, but it shouldn't claim its users abilities as its benefits.

Lastly, this analysis helps separate out user benefits (reasons for having the system), from supply benefits (why this system is better than another). Often systems are described as flexible, standards compliant, or cheap. These may be attractive, but they are not of themselves reasons to use the system.

To recap, all benefits of using IT boil down to being quicker, better or cheaper than people, or making the infeasible possible. IT does this by automating remembering, calculation and communication. Use this analysis to check that claimed benefits:

  • Could possibly be related to a computer system.
  • Come from the computers' capability, and not your own ability.
  • Are user benefits, not supply benefits.

Anything else is hogwash.

Next: Fix business problems before computer systems

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