The People's Front Of @BCS

There’s a bit of a flap going on right now at the BCS, which you may have noticed if you were wondering why the #bcstransform hashtag was all over Twitter earlier today.

It’s all a bit People’s Front Of Judea, but a partial truncated backstory is that the BCS leadership have been implementing changes to the institution which has resulted in rebranding as the “Chartered Institute of IT”. The direction of focus seems to be away from the membership groups and towards more commercial activity, and some members are up in arms about this.

This seems to have rattled the management. They’ve mailshotted some very expensive glossy brochures explaining why these changes are a Good Thing and today held a “webinar” (their term, not mine) to explain WTF is going on. I’m not convinced that any of this will have helped much, at least not if the collective opinion of Twitter is to be believed.

By way of disclosure, I’m a member, and have been for a number of years. I became a member when they dropped their ridiculous requirement that you needed a Computer Science degree from one of a list of specified “approved” universities in order to join - never mind that you might be the CIO of MegaCorp plc - if you weren’t a CS grad, you weren’t coming in.

By that criteria, Tim Berners-Lee wouldn’t have qualified, because his undergraduate degree is in physics.

I can’t say that the BCS has ever really offered me any benefits, other than the occasional sandwich at a branch meeting and access to free-at-the-point-of-delivery legal advice should that be required. I could put “MBCS” after my name if I really wanted to, and put the BCS logo on my business cards. But given the areas of the business in which I work I doubt anyone would know what MBCS stands for - and they’d probably laugh at me for using it if they did.

And all this “transformation” kerfuffle has come at exactly the same time as my pen is poised metaphorically over the renewal form. Do I hand over another £100 for the privilege, or write them off as the Worshipful Company Of Punch Card Operators (© @threedaymonk) ?

My problem is that the BCS seems to be run by people who are secretly frightened of IT, and hope that if they make it boring enough, it’ll go away. And it’s also run by people who seem to be locked into the mindset that if you want to do something, you have to build it yourself.

That’s resulted in things like the Member Network - a custom-built-at-a-cost-that-they-don’t-seem-to-want-to-tell-us-about social network which replicates a significant subset of LinkedIn, and does it badly. It’s hardly used, with most groups having less than a dozen members and no activity.

The other side of the organisation seems to largely consist of flogging certification and exams, and be dedicated to reducing IT to the kind of mind-numbing bureaucracy that the accountancy profession seems to be.

And while there’s an aspiration to be the “voice of the profession”, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of activity around this. If you’re concerned about the encroachment of corporate interests on freedom of expression, or copyright maximalism, then the BCS doesn’t seem to be the organisation for you - it’s other outfits like the Open Rights Group which are shouting about these issues.

In my more cynical moments, I wonder if that’s at least partly due to the way that the BCS seems to be run by the kind of people who work at IBM, Capita, HP Enterprise (nee EDS) and so forth. Or people who wish they did.

The thing is, I can’t think of another field that has the vibrancy, excitement and sense of possibility that IT can offer. The internet is changing society in ways that we haven’t seen since the invention of the printing press. It’s difficult not to be enthusiastic about the possibilities that the web offers - and yet the narrative from organisations like the BCS seems to be framed entirely around “governance”, and “risk”, and “control”. There doesn’t seem to be any sense of “what if?” or “how could we” - the glass is resolutely half-empty.

And just occasionally there are flashes of truly terrifying ideas, like the BCS getting involved in influencing the ICT curriculum in schools. This from the kind of organisation that seems inculcated with the tired, monochrome, copyright and corporate interest-driven view of the world that reduces IT in education to “which button to press in Microsoft Office”, instead of enthusing kids about the possibilities that are open to any proto-geek with a vague grasp of code and a hell of a lot of enthusiasm to try things until they stop breaking and something wonderful happens.

You get the sense that the BCS would never sanction building an API just for the sheer hell of seeing what people might do with your data. Mashups are something that happen in their kitchen, and Facebook is something to be blocked at all costs, lest the workforce live down to Theory-X driven paranoia about slackers and hackers.

You get the drift. The BCS doesn’t excite me. The BCS doesn’t seem particularly relevant to me. And expensive glossy brochures and broadcast-only webinars don’t strike me as engaging in the kind of dialogue that might shape the direction of the organisation into something that would be exciting and relevant.

So I probably won’t bother to renew my membership again, and I probably won’t miss it. Instead I’ll continue spend my time at events like GeekUps and Barcamps, where the future is already unevenly distributed.