Contributors Risk

Why ICT systems implode

The data culture behind contemporary ICT systems belongs to the Stone Age! A text by Jacek Marczyk.

Remember the recent British Airways IT meltdown? Problems with power supply are believed to have caused the problem. Note the word “believed”. According to the mentioned source, when the system came back online, it did so in an uncontrolled manner, damaging the IT system and initiating a sequence of events that plunged the system into a state of chaos.

Others say that the cause of the meltdown is outsourcing. By the way, why would one outsource – to another continent – a really critical part of one’s business?British Airways blames an engineer who supposedly didn’t follow the right procedures for restarting the system after a power failure.

The data culture behind contemporary ICT systems belongs to the Stone Age

Finding the single cause, or a set of unfortunate circumstances, may not be possible and we may never know why this happened in the first place. But even if they do identify the trigger event what will happen is that they will put a fix in place, so that particular trigger event will never happen again. Until another glitch appears and grounds tens of thousands of passengers, causing losses of hundreds of millions.


The BA IT meltdown is a delicious example of what linear three-dimensional thinking is all about. People insist on putting in place super complex systems – generally these are ICT infrastructures – without focusing on two keywords:



How can you possibly neglect the two key attributes of something that is critical to one’s business and, most importantly, reputation?

By neglecting complexity – that is measuring it from day one and using it as a design attribute and objective – one risks putting in place solutions that are in close proximity of what is known as critical complexity. Critical complexity is basically being on the edge of chaos – one small glitch and all hell breaks lose.

Oh, incidentally, we know how to measure complexity, critical complexity of any kind of system. That is not the issue. The issue is that of culture and this brings us to another embarrassing point, which is:


One would imagine that in our digital age corporations and businesses would be drowning in data. There is even talk of Big Data! Well, big or not, most of today’s business are incapable of putting together a small table of numbers that are critical to its business and that are monitored with a reasonable frequency.

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Ontonix deals mainly with very large corporations and helps them solve the so-called Extreme Problems, providing pre-alarms or early warnings of systemic failure. However, in order to do that, we need data. Often it is a small amount of data, a few tens of kilobytes. Imagine this dialog:

Q: Do you have a list of business critical KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) that you monitor on, say, a weekly or monthly basis?

A: What do you mean? What kind of KPIs are you referring to?

Q: Data which reflects the functioning of your business, data that your CEO has on his desk every Monday morning. You know, strategic kind of data.

A: Could you provide us with examples?

Q: Sure we can do that. But are you saying that you actually don’t know what YOUR critical KPIs are?

A: Well, no, not really.

Q: So you don’t even know how these KPIs are correlated, do you?

A: We’ve never thought of it like that.

The list of KPIs is submitted to the (large) corporation, that spends hundreds of millions of dollars on ICT every year. This is how the dialog continues.

Q: Have you received our list of KPIs?

A: Yes, and we’ve shown it to our IT governance, IT architecture guys, the accounting department, the HR department….

Q: And?

A: There are problems to retrieve this kind of data. We would need to interrogate different databases, approach different individuals. In some cases we wouldn’t even know who to ask.

Q: So you don’t know your critical KPIs, you don’t monitor them, you don’t know if they are independent or not and you’re not concerned. And you call this risk management?

The point is simple

It is not sufficient to purchase plenty of hardware and software and go to Big Data conferences or get excited about the Internet of Things if your data culture belongs to the Stone Age. If you a managing a complex system, then think in systemic terms. And monitor its complexity. If you think that compliance is more important than innovation, if you think that the world is linear and Gaussian, then you’d better brace yourself for your very own IT meltdown. Coming soon in a corporation near you.

Next week: Ryanair, a fragile complex giant

ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Jacek Marczyk, author of nine books on uncertainty and complexity management, has developed in 2003 the Quantitative Complexity Theory (QCT), Quantitative Complexity Management (QCM) methodologies and a new complexity-based theory of risk and rating. In 2005 he founded Ontonix, a company delivering complexity-based early-warning solutions with particular emphasis on systemic aspects and turbulent economic regimes. He introduced the Global Financial Complexity and Resilience Indices in 2013. Since 2015 he is Executive Chairman of Singapore-based Universal Ratings. Read more publications by Jacek Marczyk

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