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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Back to the beginning

This past month I've had the opportunity to meet up again with Jim Groark, the man who was influential in getting me where I am today in business. In the photo below, I'm on the left and Jim is on the right.

In the late 1970's I worked for Ampol Petroleum, a large Australian oil company, as Procedures Analysis Executive. (Procedures Analysis was the Ampol name for what was generally referred to at the time as "Organisation and Methods".) I'll have more to say about Ampol in a separate post. Our team was responsible for all the manual systems and human aspects of computer systems throughout the company. Most of the effort was spent on systems analysis, procedure manuals and form design.

One of the staff who worked for me had been trying to talk me into leaving Ampol and to go into business with him as a consultant, but I had been rejecting the idea as a daunting prospect. Then in January 1979, I received a phone call from a man who introduced himself as the Managing Director of a large international consulting firm. This was a big enough surprise, but his next words were even more stunning. He said:
"I'd like you to quit your job at Ampol and come and work for us". I decided to talk more and hear what he had to say.

The result was that I took his advice and entered into a partnership with my other work colleague and we subcontracted to the consultant. I need to point out that this is not the person I met this past month.

The project
The project was with the South Australian Police. They were developing a new computer system to handle firearms licensing and gun registration—a highly controversial topic at that time, just as it is now.

They had hired two specialist computer people who were experienced in such systems but had no one on the team with experience in the human side of the system—an issue that was very important given the emotive nature of the subject in South Australia. Jim Groark was one of these specialists. They also planned to use microfilm as an integral part of the system and had also hired Australia's top micrographics expert for the team.

They showed me the systems specifications and procedures that the Police had drawn up and it didn't take very long to realise that what they were trying to do was not going to work with the procedures they had written. I was able to convince them that the procedures needed to change. Fortunately, nothing had been done to develop the computer system at that stage other than some rough specifications.

So I rewrote the specifications and procedures in a radically different manner, handed them to the computer consultants to see if it would work for them. They agreed that the new specs were workable and I went ahead and wrote the manual procedures and designed the computer data entry forms that the public would have to fill in to register their guns or get a firearms licence—
ALL THIS BEFORE ANY COMPUTER PROGRAMS WERE WRITTEN. This was a radically different approach to anything I had ever worked on at either AMPOL or at Amalgamated Wireless Australasia Ltd (AWA), my previous employer. I was also on the executive of the Australian Institute of Systems Analysts (later to become its Federal President) and I'd never heard of anything like it there either.

One of the issues we faced was that because of the highly controversial nature of the legislation, the forms had to sit in Parliament for a number of weeks to be approved by the politicians. The new State Government had decreed that all forms had to be in black and white. They didn't want anything that reminded them of the colorful activities of the previous State Premier. On top of that the State Emblem was a black and white "Piping Shrike" (a local name for a magpie), but we decided to design the forms in colour anyway and let them sit in parliament. The new colored forms were accepted.

To cut a long story short, the procedures worked—the forms worked—and the system was implemented with barely a hitch.

Below are examples of four of the forms we designed. If we did them today they'd be a lot different as we still had a lot to learn about good form design, but at the time they were a radical departure from what was normally available. The aim was to make them not only usable, but as attractive as possible to overcome resistance. Applicants were going to have to go into a police station to fill out the forms, pass a licensing test as well as to take their guns in for registration.

The keys to success
The major key to the success of the system was something that I've tried to get systems and computer people to do ever since—that is, to get the procedures and manual systems working BEFORE attempting to write the programs. But it seems that computer people generally think they know best and then they wonder why so many computer systems fail. And many computer systems DO FAIL because the human side is forgotten. Keith London wrote a superb book on this many years ago called
"The People Side of Systems". It is technically out of date, but well worth reading if you can find a copy second hand.

Another key to success was the use of white data entry spaces on a colored background. Today this is common practice, but back then it was pioneering design. I don't recall ever seeing this practice up to that point. In fact, it was very rare to even see color on forms. I am aware that some designers in Canada and the UK were experimenting with the same basic approach around the same time. One US company (Moore Business Forms) came up with a different technique some time later where they had coloured data entry boxes on a white background, which they patented and named "Keytrack". The use of colored boxes hinders legibility whereas white boxes improve it.

The Project Team
Another key to success was the project team. When I look back over the past 30 years that I've been a consultant, this was by far the most successful project I've worked on. As stated above, much of the success was getting things done in the right sequence and making sure people came before technology. But another important key was the project team.

Below is a photograph of some of the surviving members of that team as they are today.

Left to right: Consultant Jim Groark — Chief Inspector Brett Woollacott (Seargent at time of project) — Seargent Michael Grant — Chief Inspector Bob Jolly (Seargent at time of project). All three police officers have retired from the Department.

The head of the team was Laurie McEvoy who was the driving force behind the project and one of the best team leaders I've ever worked for. Laurie retired as a Chief Superintendent in 1989 and passed away in 2002.

My most memorable recollection is that they were truly a team and an extremely happy team at that. Working with them was a real delight.

Well it was a great day to meet up again with my old colleague Jim and his family. I had been able to visit with them in Arizona on a couple of visits to the USA, but it was good to have them visit us back in Australia and for them to catch up with most of the old team we had worked with in South Australia. It was this project that got me started as a consultant.

1 comment:

  1. Good morning Rob, I dare take courage to come and read your blog, though my personal interest has nothing to do with yours, I'd like to ask permission to link your blog to mine which I already did anyway. :)