500 Days to Y2K: act now or be sorry later

Too often management avoids technical issues, treats them as beyond comprehension - and leaves them in the hands of the experts. Vast sums of money have been lost and will continue to be lost on delayed, seriously flawed and failed computer projects. In a Computerworld exclusive, Jocelyn Amon explains why that simply cannot be allowed to happen to your company's Year 2000 project.

Too often management avoids the technical issues and leaves it in the hands of the experts, believing the issues are beyong the bosses' comprehension. This is the main reason why vast sums of money have been lost and will continue to be lost on delayed, seriously flawed and failed computer projects. Time is short, you cannot afford to write your company's year 2000 project off as yet another computer project that did not get off the ground or did not make the deadline. You need to do things differently and, if you haven't already started, you need to take action now.

It is important to get an understanding of the nature and scope of the year 2000 problem. You may be unaware that it is not just a computer hardware and software issue. The area of embedded systems technology can pose a greater threat to company survival, take longer to check and cost more to fix than your "normal" computer systems. You will need to assess the vulnerability of your supply chain and customer base, risk management and contingency planning.

If you are suitably informed you are able to ask the right questions, allocate the person most suited to tasks and determine priorities. There are now many books available on the year 2000 problem. Many of these publications give a good overview of the problem without being overly technical. Reading any one of these publications will give you the basic understanding you require to make a start on your project.

The Internet is invaluable as a source of information. New web pages are posted, and existing pages are updated, daily. Product compliance information can be accessed and is either published by the relevant manufacturers or by others reporting their test findings. It is possible that organisations similar to your own have posted their year 2000 project information, allowing you to benefit from their experiences and methodologies. There are also subject- and industry-specific newsgroups and bulletin boards available. These provide a forum where you can post queries and view the responses from others. Access to the latest information relating to your industry, software, hardware and equipment is vital if you are to maxi-mise what time remains.

An Internet connection will also provide you with an electronic mail service, allowing you to communicate with others quickly and informally. A mutually beneficial information exchange can be initiated with others working in similar organisations and facing similar problems.

If you haven't yet mastered the internet and are unaware how it can be used for research, have someone in your organisation show you. Many people have gained internet experience on their home connection and are enthusiastic about teaching others. If you can't spare the time researching yourself, provide a list of topics and delegate someone to do it for you. The information can then be bookmarked, printed or emailed to you.

It is important that the project be driven by someone high up in management, ideally the person at the top. If you are sincere with regard to your organisation's survival, you need to make this your main priority. Delegate the work but not the responsibility and overall control. Stay in regular contact with those you delegate tasks to, give them the managerial support they require, ask for regular formal progress reports and encourage informal discussions.

Don't be tempted to hand over the responsibility for your company's year 2000 project to an outside consultant. The survival of your company is too important to put in the hands of someone who has relatively little at stake. Your technical people should not be made responsible either, as many of the issues that need to be resolved, such as risk management and contingency planning, involve management decisions. Also, very few people working with computers have any knowledge of embedded systems technology and are therefore likely to ignore this aspect of the problem and concentrate on the areas they do know something about. If your technical people haven't been trying to get you to address the year 2000 problem before now, you need to ask why.

Consultants are best used when it is clear what it is that you require to be done. It maybe that you need a one-on-one overview of the year 2000 problem involving just a few hours. Or it might be that you require a software application to be checked out for year 2000 problems and this could take several weeks or months. By using consultants for specific tasks and not for overall project management you will remain in touch with the project's progress and you will retain control over the outcome. You also reduce the impact of a setback should a consultant be unable to remain with the project. The offers of increasingly lucrative contracts in exotic locations may prove very tempting to those who have gained their valuable year 2000 skills while working on your project.

As a priority, tackle the year 2000 problems within your organisation that could threaten public or employee safety. These include potential chemical spills, gas leaks and safety equipment failure. If there is a risk of damage or threat to safety in equipment testing, ensure that you engage trained technicians to do the work.

It is also of benefit to concentrate initially on known or suspected problem areas. Real-life instances of failure found early in the project and publicised freely will raise the project profile within the company and encourage others to give their support. By making this information freely available outside of your company, you will reassure those who have an interest in your progress that you doing the necessary work. They are more likely to be concerned by guarded comments, glib assurances of compliance or carefully crafted legal statements, than by honest and open dialogue and acknowledging that problems have been found.

Consider setting up your own Internet or intranet site where you can publicise your progress. It is an ideal method of sharing information with employees and will encourage them to contribute their expertise to the project. If you have not already received a raft of compliance queries from your customers, your suppliers, your bank and others with a vested interest in your company's survival, then you soon will. No organisation is able to give assurances of year 2000 compliance or a date when they will achieve it as there are too many factors that cannot be controlled. The best you can do is keep interested parties informed of your progress on a regular basis. An internet site is one of the easiest methods of achieving this.

Relying on insurance cover, legal action or fixing it on the day are year 2000 strategies fraught with uncertainty and are likely to cause you far more pain than starting the work now. The longer you put it off, the more difficult the decisions will be and the less chance you will have of completing everything that needs to be done. The most important decision to make is how much your company's survival means to you. If the answer is that you intend to move on to better things then the easiest and perhaps the best option is to hand over the responsibility for your organisation's future to someone who will see it through to completion. If this is not the case then you need to get involved with your company's year 2000 project today to ensure that it has the best chance possible of survival.

Recommended Reading/Viewing

A Survivor's Guide to the Year 2000 Problem by John Good

The Millennium Bug by Howard D Woolston.

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