A report - rather confusingly called System Error - from the Institute for Government (IFG) in 2011 had considerable influence on UK government IT strategy. The boffins at IFG argued that the cure for the ills of government IT development was to embrace both an agile approach and also the concept of common platforms.

You may have noticed people banging on about agile. But what about the common platforms bit? According to the IFG, this should involve a relentless focus on ‘commoditisation, rationalising the management of common elements of government IT and setting common standards’.

These ideas did not come out of thin air. Among the many who developed the concept of platforms were the US academics Jeanne W.Ross, Peter Weill and David C. Robertson who in 2006 produced a book Enterprise Architecture as Strategy. Their approach to IT strategy was based on organisations adopting single platforms that produced benefits by making IT itself more efficient, rather than just focusing on IT as a means of making other parts of an organisation more effective. This meant that the approach could help a business save money, regardless of what its core business was.

The key idea was to eliminate the differences between the IT infrastructures and software applications used in different parts of the same organisation. In many businesses, especially ones that are amalgamations of previously independent entities, it is possible to find variations in the IT used in different departments to carry out what is essentially identical work such as payroll and purchase order processing.

This duplication requires a different set of staff to support to deal with each variation. By enforcing uniformity, support groups can be merged and staff reduced. Adopting organisation-wide IT products and applications also means that the bargaining power of the business can be increased when negotiating with external suppliers as you can get larger discounts on higher volume orders.

When it comes to merging applications, there is a difference between where data can be shared and where data cannot be shared, but processes can. Let’s take local government as an example of the second case. Cities, counties and districts in different parts of the country will be dealing with the needs of different citizens and localities from Penzance to John O’Groats - so data sharing would be pointless - but the services they provide are pretty well identical.

Here it makes sense for local authorities to club together to acquire common software and systems, but have separate databases. In other cases the same clients/customers are being dealt with by a number of different applications, so a common database shared between different applications would be a good idea. Universal Credits would seem to be a good example of this.

However, experiences of organisations such as the NHS show that this streamlining approach is not always straightforward. Say several independent entities with similar information processing needs but different IT applications are merged. The chances are some of the applications in use will be better than the others in some ways but more limited in other ways.

A new, common, application may mean that some sets of users will be worse off than they were, as the new applications may have less useful functionality than they are used to. Another problem is where a high number of different user groups currently using different systems have got to be moved to the new standard system. This may mean a staggered incremental plan is needed where an implementation team moves from one site to another in turn. The departments/sites left to last may suffer from ‘planning blight’ where the knowledge that systems are to be phased out leads to the neglect of support and maintenance for them.

The common platform approach is in many ways the antithesis of agility. With agile development, system developers work hard to satisfy the needs of the users, by supplying software tailored to their requirements. With platform a central authority imposes a standard system that may be a bad fit locally but offers overall economies of scale. Project Eye looks forward to seeing how this will all pan out.