I read recently a passage from a book, South Latitude by F.D. Ommanney, which was written in 1938 following a trip to the Antarctic continent in the late 1930’s. There is an interesting contemporary review from the Spectator Archive and an on-line Biography of F D Ommanney.
In this passage he is being introduced to the procedures for maintaining the engine of the launch upon which his party will rely for an unsupported exploration of the Ross Sea coast.
“The longer the explanation of these intricacies went on the more astonished I became at the faith of man, not in God but in himself and his own inventions. For we were to trust ourselves, so it seemed, upon a perilous and reef fringed coast to what was nothing more than a mass of interlocking and dependent contrivances. Each one might at any moment go wrong. If one went wrong they would all automatically go wrong and the whole thing would become in that instant a mere meaningless jumble of metal shapes……I saw before me a crouching beast, silent, inert, asleep but full of menace and the potentialities of disaster under its wooden housing amidships.”
The engine did indeed fail and later in the passage ……
“A metal plate on the engine said “It is important to …..the lubrication pumps.” The intervening words were obliterated by a smear of oil, but as I sat there listlessly working the wooden handle of the bilge pump back and forth, back and forth, my eyes fastened on this legend. What was it that was so important to do to the lubricating pumps? Perhaps George hadn’t done it. Perhaps that’s why the thing wouldn’t go. But I could not decipher it. I should never know what it was that one should do to the lubricating pumps that was so necessary or perhaps even so vital. It didn’t matter anyway. Who cared? “It is important to …the lubricating pumps.””
In bringing this up to date my mind immediately substituted modern software for the mechanics of the boat engine. Organisations increasingly rely on complex interconnected software and the consequent automation it brings to their business processes. This automation in-turn relies on the detailed knowledge, attention and ownership of a few key individuals.
So let us learn from the example of George, who could not maintain his lubrication pumps because he was not included as part of the exploration team; and acknowledge that support teams are already the most vital part of any software reliant organisation.