Making quality the rule

Microsoft wants IT professionals to be strongly regulated. Why stop there?

Nothing becomes a company so much as a high-minded commitment to principles. So when Microsoft says it's in favour of a regulatory regime for IT professionals, it's worth paying attention. If IT people want to get the same status as lawyers, doctors and the like, says the company, then they should be prepared to submit to high standards of conduct — including, in extremis, being struck off.

It's an interesting thought, although we feel comparisons are stronger with other team-based engineering disciplines. More accountability and greater stress on monitoring the quality of results would help IT in many ways, including attracting the more professionally minded to it as a career. Good regulation can set in place a virtuous circle that drives standards up.

Let's not stop there. Medical regulation doesn't just cover the conduct and competence of individual workers. Organisations that make products or services for the health industry are also heavily regulated — in the UK by MHRA, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. This asks many searching questions of healthcare companies: have the clinical trials been properly carried out? Is production of a sufficiently high quality? Are support and safeguards adequate? It even questions whether publicity and marketing is ethical and appropriate. There are at least 13 areas where the MHRA makes regulatory decisions, and its powers to close things down when they go wrong are near absolute.

This would be overkill for IT, of course. Bad medicine can kill thousands: bad software wastes money. The risk-reward equation for innovations in IT is vastly different from that for medical products. But in the same way that aspects of personal medical regulation could usefully be adopted by the IT world, aspects of corporate regulation also have their place. A proper industry association that set standards for quality, support, contracts, licences and advertising, while offering arbitration and ethical advice, would help counter the sense many have that the industry is not always as caring of its clients as it likes to make out. With organisations such as FAST (Federation Against Software Theft) and the BSA (Business Software Alliance) only too happy to lay down the law for customers, it would be refreshing to see some evidence of self-policing.

It may also see the death of one of IT's more abiding — and apt — jokes, that the only difference between a car salesman and a computer salesman is that the car salesman knows when he's lying. For that reason alone, we commend the idea to the house.