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John Thorp: Three Funerals and a wedding

Three funerals and a wedding by John Thorp [Heath 1967–1974] could be subtitled ‘Don’t blame IT for your management failures.’ In it he takes us through his experiences working in a number of IT departments showing how whether IT was able to ‘add value’ to the organisation depended on management decisions.

He admits at the start that, because IT people like building new systems, they can be swept up in management delusions rather than saying, ‘No, this will not work.’

Following the death of Laura Ashley, the company commissioned a new IT system but was broken up into ‘Strategic Business Units’ in which each CEO sought to make a profit regardless of whether this would make any profit for the company, as a result of which the company went into terminal decline. Of course, Laura Ashley, was not the only organisation to re-organise in this way; the NHS started down the same road shortly afterwards and arguably is heading in much the same direction. As John says,

If you ever come across an internal customer, show them the door as quickly as possible then change the locks (p. 21).

Joining the Burton Group, John was involved in creating a database to replace the spreadsheets being used by most of the group’s high street shops. There was no plan behind the project; they just worked back from the agreed delivery date.

The Group then went through an expansion spree followed by a contraction. So, while the database project was ostensibly successful, it is difficult to see how it ‘added value’ to the Group.

In 2007 John joined Dixons just as it was about to buy the French company, Pixmania, to give it an Internet presence, hopefully to challenge Amazon. However, Dixons’ previous experience of integrating IT systems had gone badly and this case was no different with Dixons eventually disposing of Pixmania two years later having spent at least £500M trying to make the deal work.

John then reflects on the cultural issues involved in an acquisition, not just of language and country but also of the organisation.

Finally he describes the success of the Compass Group in integrating the IT systems of a wide range of companies and in the merger with Granada’s catering interests by focusing on simplicity and being prepared to be pragmatic about the levels of integration they could achieve.

He argues that the key to this was understanding how changes in the ways in which you handle data must be integral to any changes in the ways you manage the company.

There are a great many asides into the experiences of other companies and his experiences outside these four companies which make fascinating reading.

The strength of the book is the range of insights into how management decisions impact directly on the success of an organisation’s IT services. Many managers will not have the access to a similar range of experiences and will benefit from reflecting on John’s experiences.

The weakness of the book is the poor copyediting — readers are not led to the key points but have to dig for them. That said, a manager who wants to understand how IT can ‘add value’ to their organisation will find many examples of how not to achieve this and useful insights into how to do it.

Thorp, J. (2018). Three funerals and a wedding. Leicester: Book Guild Publishing.

John R Hudson [Heath 1957–1960; 1962] is John Thorp’s cousin and a retired management and IT consultant