If you ask me

What happens when your IT systems have a catastrophic failure? Are you left holding a pig? Also, have you outsourced your mind to the group? Read on and avoid the pit-falls.

What's in the sack?

Swine buyers at medieval fairs were all too aware of the dangers of buying a pig in a poke. They constantly risked being stung by fraudulent stallholders and ending up back at home, opening their sack only to find a scrawny cat rather than a suckling pig. Times have changed, but the dangers of getting kitty when you paid for a juicy pig have not. They have just morphed and can be found in the IT sector.

"What do I get for my money?" Is one of the most basic questions in business. Astonishingly, it is rarely asked persistently enough, nor answered fully enough when it comes to looking after an organisation's electronic data.

And nowhere is it more important than in IT, because you may not know what you have got for your money until it is too late. Only then do you realise that what you have is not what you want or need.

I never cease to be amazed at how many people are prepared to pay handsomely for third parties to back up their systems and data without ever asking precisely what they will get back should they need it in a hurry.

IT directors are constantly being challenged by the need to manage effectively and securely ever increasing data volumes. There are now many companies offering a wide range of data services to businesses, the key is to ensure that in the event of a catastrophic failure the right choice has been made. This could be the single most important business decision that you have to make. Particularly in the current economic climate it could be the difference between survival and extinction.

Online back-up systems may seem to be the solution, but when it comes to a disaster, you want slick and speedy support and to be up and running rapidly with all systems working. All too often, back-up services simply store your data and deliver it back to you in a format you cannot use, for example, in disk format. There is little point in having the data if you no longer have use of the hardware to run it. A recording on wax cylinder is not going to be much use when all you have got to play it on is an iPod.

In addition, data may be taken back to a point 24 hours before, losing your business a complete day's work.

Those responsible for IT resilience and backup must ask, ask and ask again to ensure they know exactly what they will be getting back should the worst happen. To ensure that you are going to get what you are being told you will get insist on real-life demonstrations and rehearsals.

The only way of guaranteeing you are not the red-faced one holding a mangy moggy when everyone expected pork for supper, is to look in the sack before you buy…

Philip Caulfield is managing director of Adam Continuity, a UK provider of business continuity, data resilience and disaster recovery services. For a 10-point data security checklist entitled 'Why Data Vaulting Won't Work on Its Own', email wmills@adam.co.uk.

Nick Smith, management editor, E&T

You are all individuals...

I can't imagine that there is a single engineer out there not familiar with the balcony scene in 'Monty Python's Life of Brian'. But, just in case there is, let me describe it for you.

The movie is set in the Holy Land, where the oppressed local people are living under Roman occupation. A young man called Brian, born of parents of low social standing, has been mistaken for the Messiah. Having attracted a vast and unwanted following, his mother decides enough's enough.

Terry Jones (for it is he) explains to an expectant crowd that "he's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy". At this point Brian decides that the way to disperse the crowd is to appeal to their sense of uniqueness. "You are all individuals," he cries from the balcony, "you are all different".

'We are all different,' replies the crowd in unison, until one radical thinker pipes up with "I'm not".

We may wish to debate how funny this is, but from the perspective of this issue of E&T it's quite an important joke because it is one of the best examples in popular entertainment of the phenomenon of what psychologist Irving Janis called 'groupthink'.

As its Orwellian name suggests, groupthink is a negative condition, where peer pressure, causing individuals to act out of character, can create undesired outcomes.

How many times have we seen perfectly good movies trashed across the board because an influential reviewer has panned it and none of his colleagues is prepared to contradict?

Ordinary footballers see their transfer value inflate to grotesque sums simply on account of the fact that an influential and powerful manager - often with no intention of making the purchase - publicly 'rates' the player.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that groupthink is responsible for countless mistakes at management level, and if any of the readers of E&T are already starting to squirm in their seats it may be worth turning to Chris Edwards's fascinating analysis of the subject on page 74 to find out why.

In his article 'Agreeing to Fail' Edwards starts with a warning, citing author James Surowiecki, who in his book 'The Wisdom of Crowds' argues that small teams need to be on their guard. Homogeneous groups, he says, particularly small ones, when decision makers are too much alike - in worldview and mind-set - fall easily into the trap of groupthink.

Groupthink, brought about by the tendency to ignore warnings, has been responsible for some of the biggest disasters in our field - think Challenger, think Enron, think (even) the recent Malaysian Grand Prix. They all came about because of the inability of small groups to see bigger picture issues and abnegating individual responsibility in the name of the group.

If we think that this is simply a fancy way of blaming others for the poverty of our own decisions then perhaps we should turn to the political theorist and philosopher Edmund Burke who supposedly said: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good men to do nothing."

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