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Leadership for the Year 2000 Problem

by David Isenberg

With 24 and one half months to go to January 1, 2000, no expert now denies that there will be serious computer problems associated with this date change. Many entities will have Year 2000 compliant software, but others will focus on triage and mission critical systems, and still others will be caught completely off guard. The effects of single-point-source failures are likely to be amplified because virtually all systems involved in commerce are interconnected. Entities are dependent upon the operational integrity of their customers, their suppliers, their financial services providers, their outsource contractors, their federal, state and international regulators, et cetera. So called just-in-time processes remove redundancies and make the supply chain thin and vulnerable.

Two concerns define four plausible scenarios:

  1. Linkage: Failures could be isolated or they could be linked in positive feedback, so that each creates others or makes them worse.
  2. Social cohesion: There could be panic causing e.g., runs on banks and supermarkets, long gas lines, etc. (systems issues not directly linked to a date glitch) or humanity could rise in a wave of consensus to meet the collective challenge.

The space defined by these two concerns is shown below with four alternate, plausible futures:

Four Quadrants

#1: The Official Future

This future is the one towards which most official policy is directed. In this future, technological glitches will be spotty, and one failure will not cause others. People will react with a "Ho-hum, the elevator's out again" attitude. They'll say, "Oh well, the bank is unexpectedly shut for a few days, I guess I will have to use my credit card." For the most part, it'll be business as usual.

#2: Millennial Apocalypse

This is the doom and gloom story. In this future, the just-in-time supply chain breaks in many places, groceries and gasoline become scarce, transportation of goods and people becomes almost impossible, financial systems stop working, markets crash, and the government can't collect taxes, deliver the mail, or defend the coasts. People die of starvation. The health care system collapses. Its every person for themself. Entities that do not now rely upon sophisticated interconnected systems gangs, third world countries, etc. will be at a competitive advantage.

#3: Smoke In The Theater

This future takes its name from "Yelling fire" in a crowded theater. A "whiff of smoke" (i.e., an occasional technological failure) could fuel an edgy social climate to create mass behavior phenomena. For example, a one-day shutdown of a single bank might cause many people to want to withdraw money from many banks at once. Or a temporary gas shortage will lead everybody to fill up, creating systems failures that are not directly date-glitch related. And such systems problems could cause more panic, leading to yet more "irrational" behavior.

#4: Pulling Together

This future will have major technological failures, but humanity will find common purpose. People will understand the need to cooperate and comply if, e.g., the government institutes rationing, or stay at home days, or one-day-a-week banking. Perhaps volunteers (school children, the retired, the unemployed) will form "pencil and paper brigades" to take over critical functions while computer problems are fixed. And it will be amazing to see how fast diverse, unlikely groups can learn COBOL.

What is Actionable:

Scenario 4, Pulling Together, suggests that even the worst technological failure scenario could be significantly ameliorated by collective consciousness. Strong leadership can prepare people for unified action. Until now the Clinton Administration has treated the Year 2000 Problem as a minor computer glitch perhaps because it does not yet fully understand that the problem extends beyond the technological, or perhaps because it believes that it will cause panic if it acknowledges the magnitude of the problem. Neither has business nor NGO leadership materialized. But the above analysis suggests that this should change, that there could be effective action by leaders and opinion makers to rally people to a sense of common purpose.

More information on the basic problem can be found at:

Date last modified: 26 Dec 1997