A brief analysis of the failed BBC DMI project advocating that such projects are fundamentally of an engineering nature and should be managed accordingly and that there is great need for Government to introduce statutory controls on the conduct of the Business Information Systems industry
What is noticeable about the BBC’s failed Digital Media Initiative (DMI) is the comprehensive reporting of management failure to manage effectively and management’s apology to the public.
What is noticeably absent is any comment on the performance of the suppliers, Siemens who presumably were supplying the physical technology or the performance of any of the supposedly professional service providers, who consumed the £125.9 m (before recoupment).
The breakdown of expenditure is instructive:
- Contractors - £46.7m
- IT - £37.2m
- Siemens costs - £24.9m
- Consultancy - £8.4m
- BBC staff - £6.4m
- Other - £2.3m
There is NO reference to a prime contractor, only “contractors” which seems to suggest that these were individuals NOT a large computer systems contracting entity. There is also reference to “Consultancy” but no reference to which firm or firms and then “IT” presumably applies to other computer technology not supplied by Siemens – overall an interesting mish-mash that already points to the reasons why failure occurred. Not that having a large IT company like IBM necessarily guarantees a better result, as BMW (BMW owners vent anger at month’s long wait for spare parts – Bloomberg)_ and Bridgestone (IBM Rips Into Bridgestone Over $600 Million Lawsuit – Business Insider) have both learned in the recent past.
And the fact that IBM have seemingly walked away from BMW unscathed, in its own way, offers an interesting insight into the business computer systems industry, an industry characterized by more high profile investment failures than ANY other area of human endeavour in the commercial arena.
While these major IT failures are taking place the Crossrail project in London with its 10 new stations and 21 kilometres of twin railway tunnels under the centre of London dwarfs these projects in scale and complexity, yet the most superficial inspection indicates that the tunnels are where the designers said they would be and they line up with the stations. Further, global experience with projects of similar complexity indicates that Crossrail WILL deliver what it said it would, more or less on time and more or less on budget and, even if it does go over budget and deadline it will still work as planned.
So, what is different?
Ø Large highly specialized contractor organizations with a track record of delivering;
Ø Large highly specialized design organizations with a track record of delivering;
Ø A close to zero social tolerance for failure of projects of this nature;
Ø Statutory regulation and corresponding professional regulatory bodies that prevent inadequately trained and inexperienced engineers and technicians working on such projects and which impose harsh sanctions for incompetence or negligence.
“Incompetence and negligence?’ – YES! Ultimately the failure at the BBC has to be the consequence of incompetence and negligence, amongst other factors – incompetence being the lack of knowledge and experience necessary to successfully execute a project of this nature and negligence because it is negligence to embark on a project of this nature without the technical certainty that you know what you are doing and have the necessary checks and balances in place to ensure a successful outcome. Notice that I say “ensure a successful outcome” NOT “fluke a successful outcome” – success is the necessary consequence of a systematic, disciplined and informed engineering endeavour that is designed NOT to fail. Failure is the inevitable consequence of incompetence and negligence.
There is a fundamental principle that should apply in a case like the BBC’s failed DMI project in order to prevent failure – there should be a lead solutions architecture company conceptualizing and framing the solution design; a lead systems engineering company designing the solution; and a lead solutions construction company building the solution. All three of these organizations should deploy teams of highly experienced personnel with formal training and certification in the disciplines necessary for engineering solutions of this nature. And there should be tension between these three organizations, because all three (but particular the solution architecture firm) should be looking out for the best interests of the client.
“James, this is the IT industry, NOT the engineering industry!”
That is precisely the point.
The design and development of systems of ANY sort IS an engineering endeavour
The American Engineers' Council for Professional Development has defined "engineering" as “The creative application of scientific principles to design or develop structures, machines, apparatus, or manufacturing processes, or works utilizing them singly or in combination; or to construct or operate the same with full cognizance of their design; or to forecast their behavior under specific operating conditions; all as respects an intended function, economics of operation and safety to life and property.” (Wikipedia)
This is EXACTLY what the BBC embarked on with DMI, the engineering of a solution for managing their digital material.
The fundamental problem is that they failed to embark on the project as an engineering project and they failed to use engineers to manage the project.
But there IS a catch and that is that engineers do NOT know how to manage this sort of IT project and so, if you let engineers loose on their own, you get problems as well.
You see, Information Technology projects are extremely abstract. They involve software that is effectively invisible working with human beings who are for the most part, unstructured and work in unpredictable ways and there are many other complexities such that “IT Mythology” constitutes 30% of why such projects fail – IT Mythology is the mistaken belief that computer systems are in some sense magical and work on their own, provided you sort of hack it, see my website for a discussion of this and the other factors that cause IT investment failure.
What is particularly notable about the reports concerning the BBC’s DMI project crash, like so many project crashes of this nature, is that there is NO evidence of any professional body or statutory body investigating the failed project in order to establish what went wrong and to develop policies, disciplines, training material, licensing requirements and other safeguards in order to prevent recurrence – there is NO “air crash investigation” to cite the popular TV documentary.
There IS a report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers which finds “"PwC has concluded that weaknesses in project management and reporting and a lack of focus on business change... meant that it took the BBC too long to realise that the project was unlikely to deliver its objectives," it said in a statement” – this hardly points to a rigorous and tough engineering root cause assessment of why failure occurred! But then PWC are NOT an engineering company and they are deeply involved in the IT industry themselves with their own history of failures, so hardly in a position to deliver an objective assessment of the situation.
What I am referring to is a statutory body with teeth and the willingness to call a spade a spade and name incompetence when it encounters it.
In fact, there is NO indication of any intention to establish such a statutory body or such a professional body, presumably because it has NOT yet occurred to government that they have an obligation to promulgate such legislation and institute such controls. And the industry is in part too fragmented and in part making too much money out of failure to care about doing anything about the situation. After all, of the order of 70% of IT projects fail outright, as in they never see the light of day, and a further 20% materially fail to meet the requirements of the customer, partly because 70% of the components of the 20% are a total failure. This leaves us with 10% of all projects that at some material level meet client expectations and even then the indications are that less than 5% of ALL projects MEET or EXCEED the expectations held by clients at the time that the project was authorized.
So the IT industry is enormously wealthy in significant measure out of gross inefficiency and incompetence – after all, if 70% of projects die before they see the light of day it is easier to bury them quietly than to make a fuss about it and expose one’s failure to one’s shareholders and competitors let alone a drubbing from the Public Accounts Committee.
Until government and industry join forces to form a body to fully dissect failures of this nature AND establish suitable professional training, certification and licensing of consultants and vendors, the carnage will continue. Attacking and condemning the responsible executives is well and good, but if they have NO resource to prevent such failures failure WILL continue to be the norm!
I have been investigating and documenting the causes of business information system failure and what is required to prevent failure from an engineering perspective for 25 years. I formally published my findings in 2004 and have been applying these findings since then. The challenge is for someone with influence to decide that failures of this nature are NO longer acceptable and start the ball rolling to produce legislation introducing strict and onerous regulation of the business information systems industry and its practitioners.
Such failures as the BBC’s DMI project are ENTIRELY preventable and high value successful outcomes are ENTIRELY achievable.
Dr James Robertson PrEng