As the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer gets ready to announce the electrification of the banking ring-fence, we can expect a flurry of commentators telling us that the banking system is ‘not fit for purpose’.
It’s hard to avoid the phrase ‘not fit for purpose’ these days. My learned colleague Professor Google tells us that in recent months the phrase has been applied to the A12 road in Essex, the way Brighton and Hove City Council calculates overtime payments for its workers, the entire UK Border Agency and several existing or proposed pieces of legislation – immigration, planning, social security and equal pay.
There are plenty of others, but those are surely enough to illustrate that the phrase has become hackneyed to the point of losing any meaning. It is, I am sorry to say, no longer fit for purpose.
This is because it sounds like a clever way of saying something is inadequate, or simply doesn’t work, but that’s not really what it means, or not solely. Fit for purpose means something is capable of doing the job it was intended or designed to do. In 1922, when the A12 was first named – thanks again to Professor G – it was probably more than capable of doing what it was meant to do, and no doubt a big improvement on the road that had been there since the Romans.
It’s not usually that big a deal when phrases change their meaning, and it doesn’t do to moan on about it (though don’t get me started on the distinction between ‘back in the day’ and ‘in the old days’). It is important when the use of a glib cliché obscures the underlying problem, leading to a ‘fix’ that does nothing of the sort.
The problem with the A12, to stick to that, is that it needs some repairs and improvements, not that it needs replacement. You could argue – many do – that as the real purpose of a road is to move people and goods, replacing it with a railway would improve the situation, but that probably wouldn’t satisfy the man from the Automobile Association who says it’s not fit for purpose.
All of which has some bearing on the debate about bank IT systems. Failures in the infrastructural systems that banks provide for consumers and businesses are pretty much inevitable, but they will still lead to headlines saying that bank systems are ‘not fit for purpose’.
They are, just as the A12 was in 1922. The difference is that no-one is trying to run train services, or land aircraft in the cycle lane on the A12 on a regular or frequent basis.
With banking systems, that is pretty much what people are trying to do – run globally-interconnected, 24/7 real-time systems on boxes originally intended to run overnight batch updates fed to them on punch cards (an old but surprisingly long-lived form of offline storage, youngsters).
It’s the purpose that’s changed, not the systems. Recognise that and there might be a chance of addressing the actual problem.