Can you recognize the million pound chair?

Governments, companies and large organisations of all kinds regularly spend astonishing amounts of money on computer systems that are either completely broken, or which are instances of  what I call Hateware – software that appears to have been designed by people who actually hate users.

Why does this happen? Obviously there are multiple, terribly complicated factors. But I’m going to boil down one of the biggest problems to a little story.

Story time

[Dreamy fade sequence]

Imagine you have been made responsible for replacing the desk chairs in your office. The old ones have gone all sweat coloured, and you’re worried one might collapse.

So you put out a competitive tender for furniture companies. You wait, vet and score all their bids, and finally you invite the finalists in to make their pitch.

In they come: smart, sober, dressed in a way that suggests success whilst avoiding ostentation. They set up their presentation, and start to tell you about the range of office furniture they have. The pitch is fantastic. They’ve already thought about all your concerns. They have an impressive array of happy clients who are just like you. Their slides are polished and focussed. They’ve brought fabric swatches to flick through. The chairs are handsome, with just the right number of pleasing gizmos. And they can ship next week.

The presentation draws to a close – any questions?

“Well, that was fantastic – I particularly like your X1 basic office chair. Just one question, what’s the cost?”

A few minutes pass as they reflect on the wide range of maintenance contract options, chair customisations and bulk purchasing reductions. Eventually, with a little nudging, you get the price for one chair.

“The base price of the X1 office chair is currently one millions pounds, with a £500,000 yearly licensing contract. Plus tax.”

Moments later the presenters, laptops, suits and fabric swatches bump to earth on the pavement outside the office door. Security is instructed never to let anyone from the company in, ever again.

The Moral

How does this little story explain anything about ICT?

Well, re-read the story above, but replace ‘chair’ with ‘payroll system’. And replace ‘fabric swatch’ with ‘lovingly photoshopped mockups, customised for your company branding’. Go on – I’ll wait.

The pitch no longer seems so crazy, and you certainly wouldn’t kick someone out when they announce the price. Why? Because you don’t know what is a sane price for a payroll system, and what’s an absurd, insulting price.

The moral here is quite simple: you can’t make good decisions if you are lacking even the most basic frame of reference about what something should cost, or how it works.

The problem is that when it comes to identifying technology needs, and procuring successfully to fill them, you can’t simply rely on general life experience to save you.  It’s  a specialist skill, and one that requires knowledge to be constantly relearned and unlearned as technologies change.

Too few large organisations understand this. They see buying a new computer system as very much like buying new furniture – it’s just ‘all stuff the office needs’, along with car parks, printer paper or tea bags. This attitude fails to see that many modern organisations don’t have IT systems and websites, they are IT systems and websites. They can no more delegate this to some junior staffer than they can delegate the strategy of the whole business.

Almost all large organisations today need at least one person right up at the top level of the company who can spot the million pound chairs without the help of subordinates.

Now what?

Once organisations understand that they are regularly buying million pound chairs, their CEOs and boards face another problem: how do they know which of their staff can actually spot the million pound chair, if any?

Unfortunately, the solution isn’t obvious.

As of right now there are no professional qualifications that would guarantee the right skills set. Worse, there’s even an unfortunate association in my mind between people with lots of qualifications like ‘MSCE’ and ‘SAP Certified Associate’ and projects that are triply gold plated, entirely missing user-centered design, and inevitably compromised by a tribal loyalty to one vendor.

So what’s a CEO to do? The answer, for now, unfortunately has to be to hire through trust and reputation networks. Find people who appear to have delivered nimble, popular user-centred projects on limited budgets, and get them to help you hire and restructure.

Trust networks, of course, can backfire: trust the wrong person and you can be in trouble. But the Enterprise computing world has backfired into the laps of leaders and managers enough times in the last two decades.

It is time for leaders to bring some people who have got their hands dirty in the guts of digital projects into the decision making rooms, and onto the decision making boards.


Tom Steinberg is the director of mySociety, a social enterprise which provides consultation services and software development to a range of clients in the public and private sectors.

Tom will be talking more on this theme at the Local Government Association Conference next week.


  1. I find another common problem is that software is bought in by people who aren’t going to have to use it, who pick the *cheapest* of the tendered bids, tick a box off their list and move on, leaving the *entire* company stuck with a terrible holiday management system or timesheet booking system or whatever. That’s a clear principal-agent problem and the lesson to take from it, I guess, is that you should at least try a 30-day demo with the real users before handing over any money.

  2. I guess most organisations just can’t afford a million pounds for anything. But the £10k “chair” can be found in the IT systems of many organisations. But, it’s worse. When you’re replacing a chair, you don’t have any tie-in. With software, you have to replace the £10k chair with a £10k chair, because it’s the only chair that will handle the data.

    And, you have to replace the chair frequently, because your new OS won’t support the old chair. And your new hardware won’t support the old OS, which is no longer secure, anyway.

  3. I quite agree – this happens all the time with decisions made by people who haven’t a clue what they are talking about.

    Example: a data collection system and database for a multi-national clinical trial running in 7 counties for 4 years.
    Cost quoted for shiny packaged solution from a “major” vendor – £200,000 +
    Cost for bespoke system developed using Open source software by a small software house working to a detailed functional requirement – £30,000

    Easy decision – yet queried by senior management.

    ‘Nuff said.