What IT Managers Can Learn From The Failure Of A British IT Project

by drjim on January 26, 2012

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What caused the largest IT project in history to fail?

What caused the largest IT project in history to fail?

The one thing that everyone in IT has learned is to stay away from projects that we just know are going to fail, right? It turns out that over in England, they seem to have forgotten this rule. They decided to do a huge IT project to modernize their health care system and guess what, it just failed. Sounds like a great learning opportunity for IT managers…

The UK Health Service IT Upgrade Project

So what was this monster project? It turns out that just like every other county; the UK’s public health care system uses a confusing tangle of outdated IT systems that don’t do a good job of talking to each other. Back in 2002, the UK government decided to do something about this and they were willing to put their money where their mouth was.

The total cost of the IT upgrade project was forecasted to be US$17 billion. Its goal was to digitize patient records in addition to linking all of the different parts of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS).

What Went Wrong

You have to love it when there is a plan, right? So what went wrong with the UK’s gigantic health care IT project? It turns out that a number of different things went wrong.

One of the things that caused the UK government to get fed up with the project and decide to take the dramatic step of cancelling it was that costs had gotten too large. Specifically, what the government was discovering was that hospitals were paying roughly $18M for IT systems as a part of the program. The problem with this is that the very same solutions could be purchased outside of the IT project for roughly $2M – $4M.

Another motivation for the cancelling of the program was that the IT contractor (Computer Sciences) was unable to deliver a key software application on time. This application was the cornerstone of the whole system. It was to help doctors and nurses follow patients as they moved through the hospital as well as keep track of any tests that they had done.

What All Of This Means For You

No IT manager wants to have their career or their IT dream team associated with a big IT project failure. The UK Health Service IT Upgrade Project is a very big and visible failure. In retrospect, what could an IT manager have done to avoid being associated with what happened to this project?

I think a key takeaway is that big is bad when it comes to the IT sector. A project this big and one that lasts this long (2002 was a long time ago), is bound to fail. A much better way of going about doing a project like this is to make a proposal to your management that you break it into multiple smaller projects. By doing this, there isn’t a single project that can fail, but rather a series of projects whose incremental successes can be built upon as you and your team get closer and closer to your overall goal.

By showing leadership and suggesting creating multiple projects, you can also adjust each project to reflect decreasing prices of IT components over time. Instead of having to lock into prices years before you’ll need the IT gear, this way you can adjust to the current prices when you reach that point.

IT managers can make sure that the IT projects that they are responsible for don’t encounter the same fate that the big UK health care IT upgrade project did. Plan your projects correctly and they’ll stay healthy.

- Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World IT Management Skills™

Question For You: What should an IT manager do if you see that a proposed IT project is becoming too big?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

How’s that job going IT manager? Do you find yourself and your IT team more and more often with too much to do and too few hands with which to do it? If so then maybe both of you are suffering from “IT Manager Attention Deficit Syndrome”. What can you do about it?

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