Mapping IT meltdowns

Big organizations suffer big IT failures, although technology isn't usually to blame

Every few months, I exchange e-mail with a contact of mine, a guy with a fairly high-level IT job in the government. Actually, I don't really exchange e-mail with him. Because he works for a particularly secretive branch of the government, he has never given me his e-mail address. So I send a note to his assistant, who eventually e-mails his boss's response back to me in government time -- somewhere between immediately and never. The reply e-mails are based, presumably, on whatever my .gov guy has told his assistant. Occasionally, though, the whole process feels like a high-tech version of the game "telephone," with exquisite opportunities for misunderstanding built right in.

I bring this up not as a gratuitous swipe at our friends in government, but rather as an illustration of how difficult communications can be in a large organization -- and what organization is larger the United States government? Contributing Editor Dan Tynan reports on similar procedural and structural problems in this week's cover story, which identifies the causes of -- and cures for -- common IT disasters.

In assembling a veritable catalog of tech catastrophes, all culled from real life, Tynan talked to C-level execs, managers, consultants, and other tech veterans. Several themes emerged. "Companies suffer IT debacles for numerous reasons," Tynan notes, but No. 1 is poor lines of communication. "Too many companies make decisions in a vacuum, with top managers sitting in a conference room with plush seats. No one visits the cubicles, or even the middle managers, to see how things work in the real world." Ultimately, the entire mess gets dumped in the project manager's lap, who has to make the best of a bad situation.

This problem is particularly pernicious in larger businesses. "The bigger the corporation, the bigger the bureaucracy," Tynan says. "And the bigger the bureaucracy, the more layers you find." Pile on enough layers, and miscommunication is inevitable.

The second most common cause of failure, Tynan believes, is fear. "In your typical large company, there's often no one willing to say, 'We have a problem,' or even, 'That's not a good idea,' " Tynan contends. "Many people are afraid to speak the truth to people in power," he adds. And even if someone is willing to speak up, "No one wants to tell the boss that his pet project is a pig." Inevitably, cowardice is a formula for failure.

Tynan also identifies unsupervised consultants, unchecked project scope, an unwillingness to admit failure, and sometimes even lax security procedures as common IT project killers. Oddly, most of these Achilles' heels have little to do with technology choices and everything to do with institutionalized, procedural roadblocks.

IT pros, it seems, put plenty of thought into software and hardware. It's mismanagement, office politics, and flawed processes that trip them up almost every time.