Financial companies' failings sound like the same old IT story. An awful lot of tech investment was misdirected, miscalculated or simply wasted.
I feel like I've written this column before. The headline could be, "How could Wall Street
companies invest so much in technology yet know so little about their
We've recently watched the Lehman Brothers meltdown, Fannie Mae
and Freddie Mac become wards of the state, and once-big, strong companies such
as AIG and Washington Mutual run with tin
cup in hand to anyone who might have two quarters to rub together. It all makes
me think that an awful lot of tech investment was misdirected, miscalculated or
I'm sure there are many Ivy Leaguers on Wall Street who can
provide some quant or other high-flying-sounding analysis on why the technology
systems in place were not sufficient to sound the alarm for Lehman or Bear
Stearns or Fannie Mae, and so on, when their respective risks far exceeded any
rational investor's willingness to invest.
Here are my considered guesses as to what happened.
The smokescreen of "alignment
of business and technology."
Ask any CIO
what his or her job is, and chances are you will hear about business and
technology alignment. But what happens when the real business of the company
isn't the one marched out in board meetings and PowerPoint presentations?
I doubt that any of the companies now shaking the financial
foundations of Wall Street and beyond ever said, "Our business is to invest in
ever-more-arcane financial derivatives tied to a real estate bubble until we
get to the point where we don't know where our money is, the risks involved or
what will happen to us when this foolish bubble bursts."
You won't see that
investment objective engraved in marble, and no one was trying to align his or her
technology to that statement of purpose, but the real company strategy was the
one that brought down these financial giants.
a touchy subject. The best financial technology systems are the ones that are
flexible, robust and secure, and that have an interface and user capability
where you don't need a programmer to perform every what-if scenario. A good
financial business intelligence system would have been able to alert its users
that things were getting mighty shaky in a world built on splintered financial
instruments traded in the dark.
Outsourcing works best when you can precisely define what
operations you want to hand over to an outsourcer, and then you don't make a
whole lot of changes in those definitions. I think Wall Street's infatuation
with outsourcing led it to save a lot of IT dollars and lose its ability to
build new IT systems for new financial environments. Dumb move.
The lack of adult
While the post-Enron era provided a host of regulations
looking at reporting requirements, e-mail archiving and tracking of corporate
financial data, a very big something was still being missed by the regulators.
It seems like the classic IT problem of building systems that
can track a process down to its most minute details but are never able to roll
up all those details into a strategic vision. Did all those government
compliance regulations keep everyone so busy complying with the details that
they missed the hurricane on the horizon?
eWEEK Editor at Large Eric Lundquist can be reached at