Y2K's Fallout of Good Fortune

The year 2000 problem transformed some IT organizations and their companies for the better -- and there's no turning back.

It's mostly over. If your people were skillful and thorough and your company was lucky, you've passed into 2000 with your business intact. All of your employees are breathing more easily and congratulating one another.

But there remains just a touch of ambivalence. It sure would be nice if you could show that all that time, money and effort bought your company something other than survival.

Well, it did. Y2K managers say the effort had positive, transformational effects on every level it touched, from information technology departments to businesses, multinational corporations and even entire industries. Here's how:

Project Management

The big winner, most Y2K veterans say, has been project management. "We've gained a wealth of experience," says Steve Jost, Y2K manager at Deere & Co. in Moline, Ill. "There's been a lot of honing of skills; working more tightly together with large groups in different parts of (the) organization. We have much more extensive and tight communication and a lot of new project-management situations under our belts."

There's also a new understanding of the dynamics of cross-functional project management, which will be increasingly crucial in the global marketplace.

"Y2K has been a major cross-functional project, and we have learned a great deal about how to do that," says Jerry Miller, CIO at Sears, Roebuck and Co. in Hoffman Estates, Ill.

"The processes and disciplines we've put in place will be a big help for us in the future," says Miller.

An important side effect of the new emphasis on project management has been the emergence of the project office, which, in many cases, began as the Y2K program office. "It's an enterprisewide effort to look at planning, quality assurance, infrastructure management -- the things that support enterprise IT projects," explains Chuck Aquilina, director of the Resolve 2000 practice at Keane Inc., a Boston consulting firm.

Contingency Planning

Y2K also vastly improved other corporate processes such as the building and testing of business continuity plans.

"We're going to come out of this with very up-to-date business continuity plans, and they will be in a consistent format across the organization and worldwide," says Jost.

Before concerns about year 2000 arose, contingency planning didn't get much attention, but now everyone is committed to keeping plans up-to-date and well rehearsed. "The world is too dynamic," says Jost. "We have to be sure we're able to recover from unforeseen contingencies."

The lessons of Y2K in business continuity planning will serve the city of Chicago for years, says Barrett Murphy, a director in the mayor's office.

"For us, it's really been great because all the preparation for disaster is stuff we needed to do anyway," he says. "Power outages happen all the time. Servers go down all the time. We've really been able to update our contingency plans and make them much broader. Now if we lose 911, we can still operate."

Testing

Y2K taught the importance of testing and yielded greatly enhanced testing procedures, as well as procedures for wholesale software conversion. "We developed a very rigorous process for remediating and testing for Y2K and generated very comprehensive documentation," says Jost. "We've got much more comprehensive test data, test beds, databases and much better, more thorough software conversion procedures."

Most important, "that's very repeatable," he says. "It can be used for many types of things going forward." For example, should the U.S. run out of 10-digit phone numbers, as many expect, all applications might have to be changed to accommodate longer numbers. "You're really looking at the same kind of process as Y2K," Jost says.

Asset Management

"I always said the best way to make sure an application is Y2K-compliant is to get rid of it," says Jost.

"We've retired a lot. It keeps support costs down and makes things much more manageable," he adds.

Many Y2K inventories turned up antique hardware and mystery software. "I know a case where they found an old DOS machine running some system, and nobody knew what it was doing," says Scott Shemwell, managing director at Enterprise Networking Systems Inc., a Houston consulting firm.

Putting those relics out of their misery streamlined systems and saved untold maintenance costs, and the inventories allowed people to get a handle on what remained. "For the first time, we have a real inventory of systems and embedded chips," says Murphy.

Y2K work clarified not only what the IT assets were, but also how they were related, says David Iacino, director of the Millennium Project at BankBoston. Now when someone requests a change, IT managers can look up the system and immediately see all the areas that will be affected. "We never had that kind of asset management before," he says.

Having that kind of information has let Alliant Energy Corp. in Madison, Wis., institute what it calls "clean configuration management," says Suzette Mullooly, a Y2K project manager. Now upgrades and system changes are better coordinated to avoid disruption.

Communications

Y2K improved communications, both within companies and among companies and their suppliers and customers. "We have done a great deal of communication to keep our employees informed and advised of their responsibilities to our board of directors and the investment community and to our customers," says Skip Patterson, Y2K project manager at Philadelphia-based Bell Atlantic Corp. "We have also learned a great deal about how to manage relationships with vendors and to develop them to the point of trust and responsiveness."

Year 2000 opened up communications throughout the city of Chicago. "We set up a level of communications that never existed before," Murphy explains. "Now we're cross-integrating systems between agencies. So if we see a problem with a (Chicago Transit Authority) building, instead of saying 'It's not our responsibility,' we can (call attention to it) and track it."

Understanding of Systems

"We've gained a fuller knowledge of our IT systems," says Mullooly. For example, a few years ago, Alliant used a consulting firm to help develop a customer information system, but because of inadequate knowledge transfer, the inside people never quite achieved a detailed understanding of the system. After delving into the code during Y2K remediation, "we have a much better understanding of it ourselves," she says. "In the future we'll make sure there's better knowledge transfer."

Hardware and Software

While many companies reduced IT inventory as a result of year 2000 projects, many also replaced outmoded systems with new and improved ones. At Vermont Student Assistance Corp., a nonprofit guarantor and lender of student loans in Winooski, Vt., the discovery that an aging phone system wasn't Y2K-compliant led to an overhaul of the entire IT infrastructure.

"We were at a transition point where we were pushing the boundaries of what we had," says Y2K coordinator Tod A. Provost. Since a number of upgrades were required anyway, the lender decided to replace virtually everything, from PCs and servers to cabling and network hubs.

"If it wasn't for Y2K, we would've continued on with the piecemeal upgrades," Provost says. Instead, "Y2K allowed a corporate initiative to standardize everything, to implement a very, very successful training procedure to bring everyone up to speed on all the applications, to become very efficient and to have additional flexibility for future growth."

Replacing old systems led to improvements in business processes in Chicago. For example, in the city government's old system for tracking complaints and follow-up activities -- such as filling potholes and trimming trees -- workers simply indicated whether a fix had been made. "Now they put in a description of the problem and the crew, how many bags of cement or how many bricks, how long it took," Murphy explains.

Similar new systems track everything from newly planted trees to damaged trash cans. "It's given us a much better ability to track how efficiently they're doing the work, so now we can do best practices and compare across the nation" with other big cities, Murphy says.

Best Practices

Y2K increased cooperation among international offices of multinational corporations and even among competitors in the same industry. "We shared best practices with BankBoston in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Panama, Mexico and Colombia," Iacino says. "We've shared very openly with (competitors) because we all had the same problems. That's a huge change. We had never done that before."

And the change encompassed more than private sector banks, he says. "It was unheard of for the Federal Reserve to share with the (Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.), but they had to come together, and they too have (benefited) from this process."

Having seen the value of sharing, Iacino says, there's no going back. "Look ahead at e-commerce," he says. "Why should we all develop different processes, especially if we will be 'e-commercing' with one another? Why don't we set up something standard that pulls together the best minds to see how this will operate?"

Appreciation of IT

Finally, the Y2K effort brought a new understanding of IT's importance in everyday life.

"The biggest thing is a new awareness of how computers are integrated into day-to-day business more than people ever thought," Murphy says, adding that he sees a new respect for IT among all kinds of city constituencies in Chicago.

"Companies and governments realize how important IT is to getting day-to-day business done," he says. "The barriers between MIS and operations have broken down, and (users) are embracing it. That's the biggest thing Y2K has brought."

And end users aren't the only ones who have gained a new respect for technology. "Y2K forced executives to own IT," Aquilina says. "They need to be involved and understand what's happening with systems, and that won't go away."

Closer executive involvement also means greater accountability. "The days where bugs were accepted -- those days are gone," Aquilina says. "Expectations are much higher. If a system goes down, somebody has to answer why. It's a different world."

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Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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