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Technology adoption and force majeur

In the decade or so before world war I most European police agencies were focused on the suppression of political dissent - the 1898 Rome conference that ultimately led to the founding of Interpol in 1923 was, for example, dedicated to improving international co-operation for defence against attacks by social anarchists.

As a result those police forces experienced both rapid growth and significant management churn as the internal players fought for position, the crowns poured in money, and the American democracy's exploding commercial success weakened public support for the class system.

In contrast the job American police were asked to do didn't change much over the period - and neither the 1901 McKinley assassination nor the 1908 founding of the FBI drove significant change in either the police mission or its control.

This difference in relative churn, mandate, and focus had an odd consequence: the period from the introduction of the Colt 1911 semi-automatic hand cannon to widespread official adoption of semi-automatic hand guns by police forces lasted about seventy years in the United States - but most European national police forces had standardised on a local descendent of the 1902 Lugar 9mm Parabellum well before World War I broke out.

The obvious lesson here is that war time promotion drives change while peace time bureaucracies drive continuity, but a more subtle reading suggests that outsiders drive change, insiders drive continuity - and the subtlest lesson is that a new technology once rejected by insiders, stays rejected until outside events force change.

That's why, in the 1920s and 30s, American police officers were expected to pit 1870s style six shot revolvers against gangs armed with machine pistols and automatics - and that disparity in firepower continued until veterans returning from Vietnam rose far enough in police ranks to put an end to this in the eighties.

To put all of this in IT terms, consider what happened with Apple in the eighties - confronted with a choice between the PC/AT and its derivatives on one side and Macs on the other, organizations with professional IT people invariably bought the PC while those without entrenched IT professionals bought the Mac.

It's what happened to companies like Sun, Applo, and SGI - customers with large DEC or IBM installations and staffs in place didn't buy their products: so they sold to the have-nots in computing: academics, engineering firms, and start-ups operating on shoe string budgets without formal professional IT support.

It's also what's happening with Linux in schools. Read those BECTA reports on Linux use in British schools again and you should notice the parallels. Both the likelihood that a school would move to open source, and the degree to which those which did obtained benefits, varied inversely with the extent to which there was expertise in place.

Metaphorically we're now in the 30s and 40s, with people going up against modern business problems armed with nothing more than iVMS, dated networking technologies, and the absurdity that is Windows client-server - and that's the lesson for non IT management: comfort, usage, and tradition breed resistance to change which only external necessity can break quickly. If you're tired of the daily reboot on costs and support: find a crisis and fill it with an outsider wielding the tools rejected by insiders - tools like Solaris, MacOS X, or Linux.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.