An ongoing debate fostered by Stewart Alsop rages over when we’ll unplug the last mainframe. (Does this mean there are debates alsoped by Ed Foster? Inquiring minds want to know.)

Back in the good old days, microcomputers processed eight bits, minicomputers sixteen, and mainframes thirty-two. Then progress happened. The laptop computer I’m using to write this column has more raw processing power, and even with lowly Windows/95 crashes less often than the IBM 360/158 I used in 1980.

Stewart has concluded we’ll never unplug the last mainframe. I’m forced to agree, because mainframe isn’t a class of technology, it’s a state of mind. The mainframe mentality – central control – has gained renewed popularity.

Sherman, set the Wayback Machine for 1980. Apple computer dominates the fledgling personal computer market with a 6502 microprocessor, a 40-column screen, and VisiCalc. Accountants flock to this puppy. Why? Because it makes them independent of Data Processing, that’s why.

Well, progress has overtaken us:

  • Various forms of .ini files have made it impossible for end-users to be self supporting, just as fuel injection spelled the end of home car care.
  • Local Area Networks means our formerly independent systems now plug into a shared resource, and we may even load software from central file servers.
  • Electronic Mail and shared directories mean we ship files back and forth, which in turn means we have to agree to common file formats.

Progress is just dandy. In this case it means more powerful systems that are easier to use and provide more value than ever before. The price?

The combination of interconnectedness and maintenance complexity has given central IS a logical reason to regain the control it lost when PCs hit their growth curve in the mid-1980s.

Many IS departments now forbid end-users from loading software into their PCs – only IS-approved standards may be used. That’s fine if IS has a standard – if your employer uses WordPerfect, why should you insist on using WordPro? – but it makes no sense when IS provides no tool and forces users to do without.

Another example of the trend: Not all that long ago, I heard several senior IS executives talk about the importance of getting control over all the “hidden code” that had come into being over the past ten years in their enterprises. The code in question? Formulas in spreadsheets.

Yes, these people seriously believed it would be in their companies’ best interests if IS gained control over the formulas embedded in the various and sundry spreadsheet models employees had created to help them do their jobs.

Why? Two reasons. First, some spreadsheets go into production, serving as crude database management systems that keep track of departmental information. Second, IS supposedly has a far better understanding of how to create consistent “business rules” in ways that encourage code re-use and logical consistency than the end-users who keep on re-inventing the wheel in the various spreadsheets they build.

While clearly absurd (why IS should have any more to say about the contents of an electronic spreadsheet than it does over one created with graph paper, pencils and calculators is beyond me) the trend back to central control is gaining force.

Yes, it’s absolutely true that end-users use spreadsheets to manage databases, using the wrong tool for the job and creating maintenance headaches downstream. I use a screwdriver to open paint cans, for that matter. There are no “Paint Can Tool Police” to stop me, and if I bend the screwdriver, that’s my business.

Duplication of effort is a price companies pay for empowered employees who act independently. Inconsistent spreadsheet formulas are simply the electronic consequence of diverse perspectives about the business.

And IS isn’t all that good at consistency. It manages multiple databases. Equivalent fields in different databases usually have different formats, inconsistent values, and often, subtle differences in the semantics of their definitions.

The personal computer was a key enabler of employee empowerment. Resist the trend back to mainframes. Give end-users as much freedom as you can.

“You have to draft a Mission Statement,” cried our consultant, passion in his voice. “According to a recent study, every successful organization has one!”

It seemed like a harmless enough way to keep all of us managers … uh, leaders … out of our employees’ hair, so I refrained from asking how many unsuccessful organizations also had Mission Statements. The whole management team toiled away and, after several drafts (43 as I recall) we came up with suitably dull phrasing that encompassed everything we did as a division, offended nobody, and pleased our consultant immensely.

An entirely worthless bit of prose, typical of the genre.

Why do some Mission Statements seem to create energy while the vast majority seem to generate ennui instead? What’s the difference between a Charter, Mission Statement, and Vision, and why all three? Aren’t they all really pointless exercises in wordsmithery, distractions from the real work of whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing?

These documents should create real value. Before looking at why so many go wrong, let’s look at the role each one plays.

As with a lot of internal organizational theory, the idea of creating these documents stems from their utility in helping whole businesses figure themselves out. For a business, its Charter defines the business it’s in, its Mission defines its market positioning, and its Vision explains its significance – how it will improve whatever marketspace it participates in.
Which leads to a useful question: do principles for managing a business scale down to divisions, departments and teams? The answer, in this case, is an unequivocal “probably”.

You certainly need to understand your Charter. It ensures you and your employer agree about why you exist. No problem there.

Why do you need a Mission Statement? Market positioning results from competitive forces, doesn’t it?

Yes it does. As it happens, you’re working in a highly competitive situation. Plenty of managers would love your job. Any number of technical services organizations would enjoy taking over what you do. And the company that employs you and spends money for your services wants an organization positioned in harmony with its goals and strategies.

Do you need a Vision – an explanation of how achieving your Mission will help transform your company and improve its standing in the market? Absolutely. Visions motivate. They help employees understand how they’ll make a difference. They also demonstrate your ability to lead, as opposed to just supervising work.. That will create confidence in you.

Why do so many Mission and Vision Statements fail? Three reasons.

First, for one reason or another, most end up being descriptive when they should be prescriptive. Your Mission and Vision shouldn’t legitimize everything you might ever want to do. They should inform everyone which, out of all activities you might undertake, you ought to actually engage in.

Second, most efforts focus on creating the documents. That’s just plain ridiculous. The ideas are what matter, not the phrasing. Employees may not agree with your approach, but they need to understand the direction you’ve chosen and agree to work within it.

Finally, far too many of us think of these efforts as projects, having a beginning (“Let’s write them.”), middle (“I think this word works better than that word.”) and end (“Here’s our Mission Statement. Carry it with you at all times. The team that wrote it did a fine job and I’m proud of them.”).

Don’t write a Mission Statement, print a bunch of posters, paste them around your organization, and breathe a sigh of relief (“Whew! I’m glad that’s finished.”) Don’t worry about the phrasing of the statement at all. Instead, hold discussions about your mission and vision frequently with the whole management team to make sure your direction still makes sense as circumstances change.

Encourage your managers and supervisors to use their understanding of your mission and vision to provide context in discussions with staff.

Understanding of your mission and vision has to become pervasive. With enough discussion the right words will come.