Disruption and distraction: Y2K, GDPR and Brexit

  • Robert Ledger

Whatever your views on Brexit, it’s proving frustratingly impossible to ignore. Since the referendum in June 2016, the process has acted as a vortex, sucking in energy from across sectors. Clients are engaged in all manner of contingency planning, delaying or bringing forward key decisions, efficiency savings and much else besides. This is generating work for consultants but is essentially, apart from its obvious disruption, a distraction. In this respect Brexit-related work contains echoes of other recent upheavals.

While Brexit is an unpredictable bump in the road somewhere on the horizon (possibly coming rapidly into view), comparisons are being made with two other considerable regulatory, and technological changes—the Y2K millennium bug and the EU’s 2018 General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Take, firstly, the dreaded millennium bug. The spectre of a global computer meltdown led to endless hours of preparatory work without any of the apocalyptic predictions coming true. Better to be safe than sorry though. Y2K planning was necessary but acted as a diversion, shifting resources away from other complex transformation. The exact costs were contested but it is estimated that contingency planning for the millennium bug ran to hundreds of billions of dollars. Keeping in mind this was the decade of monumental change in IT, energy could’ve been ploughed into supporting and cultivating the ‘digital revolution’, but instead, resources were spent trying to stymie a phantom computer flaw. What a waste of everyone’s time and money that turned out to be.

The introduction of GDPR last year had more predictable consequences but provided a major headache for clients nonetheless. Responding to dramatic changes in the digital economy, in particular the rapid rise of tech giants like Facebook and Google, the GDPR was a regulatory response to these changes, driven by privacy concerns. The similarity between Y2K and GDPR? Apart from an IT ingredient, clients had to spend significant sums on solutions to cope with a new reality or impending change.

Although likely to have far-greater fundamental and far-reaching implications, Brexit has been compared with both the Y2K bug and GDPR. As our report, The UK Consulting Market in 2019, sets out, although the extent of disruption caused by Brexit is still unknown, the process has already proven a distraction, diverting resources away from other transformational projects. In this sense, Y2K, GDPR and Brexit share something in common.

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