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The Need to Publicize System Failures

Why we need to peel back the onions.
Jul | 21 | 2009


Jul | 21 | 2009

System failures are common. While we often hear the statistics, we rarely hear the specifics—the “fly on the wall” conversations that cause IT projects to fail. Absent the details, how will people learn the best ways to undertake them? A few things come to mind:

  • System Integrators (SIs) and consultants
  • Academic studies
  • Conversations with peers

To be sure, consultant advice is essential. Also, I’m a big believer in quantitative studies and formal and informal discussions regarding IT failures. Still, these mechanisms are often not able to fully answer many critical questions. Consider for a moment digital health records, a topic that will get much play with $19B in stimulus money earmarked for it.

Specific questions include:

  • What challenges will hospitals face digitizing their health records?
  • How did they attempt to overcome those challenges?
  • What can other hospitals learn from these mistakes?

Why the Silence?

Organizations of all sorts try to hide their system failures. Many times, they are successful. In the rare event of a lawsuit, it’s not uncommon for parties to settle confidentially. When the results of failed IT projects do become public, key players often attempt to minimize the damage for obvious reasons. Software vendors are less likely to sell new licenses and services if word gets out that their applications do not work as advertised or require heavy customization. SIs face similar concerns from discerning clients.

For their part, clients rarely want to air their dirty laundry about issues faced during the implementation surrounding petty internal politics, inadequate mainframe systems, messy data, end-user resistance, and other major blunders that cause many IT projects to exceed their budgets, miss their deadlines, and result in suboptimal functionality. No one wants to look bad and subject themselves to public scrutiny. Clients are not above reproach, however. Not everything can be blamed on SIs and vendors.

Avoidable mistakes are made multiple times because Company A didn’t know that Company B encountered the same issue. The fundamental problem reflects a broader trend mentioned in books such as The Cheating Culture and Freakonomics. In this case, what’s best for one vendor or client (lack of bad PR) is not best for others, or for the industry at large.

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