James West says that we could all learn a lesson about the new role of IT by looking at the NHS procurement example.
The NHS is wasting 500 million pounds every year because buyers are failing to get the best prices for consumables, with spending fluctuating widely between different departments and silos within the organisation. The figures released by the National Audit Office have caused quite a storm in the national press given the current obsession with cost savings and the likely response from government will be to create a task force to understand why so much is being wasted.
The next logical step will be to create a central procurement department to help secure the economies of scale that buying en masse could bring to the NHS. This thinking is sound, but it will not work in isolation unless the procurement team is given the right resources – namely a good database and integration of buying systems.
In fact, to save even more money, a central store of buying information, preferred suppliers and recommended prices based on previous purchases would actually negate the need for a central procurement team and the resources that it would require.
However, the chances of the NHS using IT in this manner are slim, given its track record in throwing money at projects such as a the patient care records system (which still doesn’t work and has so far cost more than £16 billion).
For the rest of us, this example is a lesson in how IT must behave in the future. For IT to enjoy more support, rather than suffering further budgets cuts, the NHS procurement story is a great example of the sort of issue that technical departments should be identifying and solving. In this case, if someone within IT could put forward a tangible plan to build a system which will save the NHS £500 million per year, without the long-term cost liability of a central buying team, it would take an extremely blinkered decision maker to ignore the option.
The same is true within any business. Supporting PCs is no longer enough to justify spending on IT, technical teams should be studying the business to see what problems it faces and formulating ideas for solving them. Take the example of mobile working. Most businesses suffered through the heavy snowfall late last year, losing x-days of productive work, while the spectre of mass absenteeism through a flu pandemic still looms large. Given these circumstances, you can bet that all business leaders would entertain any proposition that potentially side-steps the problem and would be willing to fund such a project because they could write it off against predicted savings.
We hear a lot about IT aligning with the business and much of the talk is empty rhetoric. However, the idea of IT solving problems is very real and if technical teams can position themselves at the sharp end of this marriage between the business and IT, they will find themselves becoming indispensable.