Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Big computer contracts, big computer glitches

The Globe today reports on hearings held yesterday by the state legislature on problems that exist in a new online system for submitting unemployment claims.  Similar problems have occurred with major new computer systems for the Department of Revenue and for the Registry of Motor Vehicles.  Then there is healthcare.gov, the web-based portal for those seeking health insurance coverage which is all part of the Affordable Care Act.  These state projects, at least, each cost tens of millions of dollars yet they are beset by performance issues, cost overruns, and delays in deployment.  What's going on?

Part of the problem, in my view, is something that's not unique to government.  It's that many of the top decision makers, be they in government or corporate America, are deficient in their technological aptitude.  The CEO of a company or the Director of a governmental agency are used to being (or to being treated like) the smartest and most powerful person in the world.  When the talk turns to technology, however, the leader who lacks a solid foundation of technological literacy is soon adrift and uncomfortable.  Since it's usually the organization's own IT people who create that unease (partly because they're technicians, not salesmen), they are soon banished to the computer room and the chief comes under the spell of the consultants who are salesmen.  They give the chief a warm, fuzzy feeling at least until the contract is signed.  The problem that typically arises is that the people designing the new computer system and the people who best understand how the business operates, don't communicate very well. This is the critical factor because the computer is just another tool that is used to operate the business.  If the people controlling the design of the computer system don't understand how the business works and if the people who understand the workings of the business don't understand what the computer designers are proposing, the result is usually unsatisfactory.  I think that's what we're seeing now.

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