Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Feeling sorry for EDS - business that don't know what they want


It is not often I feel sorry for EDS. Early in my career I had contact with EDS and I was not impressed. Since then nothing I have heard about them has caused me to change my opinion. So it is pretty unusual that I ever give them the benefit of the doubt, let alone feel sorry for them. But this time maybe I do...

Just at the moment EDS are being sued by BSkyB - part of News International - for failure to deliver on a project. In 2000 BSkyB agreed to pay EDS £48m to develop a new ‘state of the art’ customer service system. Unfortunately the project collapsed in 2003, BSkyB completed the project without EDS at a cost of £265m and are now suing them for £709m. The case is being covered by the FT if you want to know more.

Basically EDS claim that BSkyB didn’t know what it wanted. It seems the requirement was simply: a ‘state of the art’ customer service system to provide BSkyB competitive advantage over their competitors. BSkyB respond that EDS didn’t follow any recognisable project planning system.

I don’t know the rights and wrong of the case, what I do know is that businesses frequently don’t know what they want. I’ve written about this several times before (Software requirements and strategy and Requirements: A dialogue not a document for example). This case is about EDS and BSkyB so it is high profile but the same debate is acted out between thousands of IT providers and their customers every week. Because these names are less well know, and because these companies can’t afford to go to court we never heard about them and some agreement is reached.

This happens internally too. Companies with their own IT groups often get into this mess, the business can’t tell the IT people what they want. Perhaps it is because I’m in London but most of the stories I hear involve banks. Sometimes being part of the same company can help, and sometimes it makes things worse.

Rather than ask whose fault is it? we need to ask How can we fix it?

Well there are two parties here and both need to be involved.

The business side needs to set the overall goals - ‘build a state of the art customer service system to produce competitive advantage’. And the IT side - whether in house or outsourced - needs to implement what was asked for an no more. But in between there is a massive, massive, gap.

• What does a state of the art customer service system look like?
• What is competitive advantage in customer service?
• How do you avoid spending so much on ‘state of the art’ that you loose competitive advantage?

These aren’t easy questions to answer. Neither side can answer them alone and neither side can expect the other to answer them. You need co-operation, you need an on going dialogue.

Business needs to be able to articulate what it wants but it is wrong to think it can articulate everything up front. It can set goals but in achieving those goals there are thousands, indeed millions, of options and decisions to be made. The devil really is in the detail. Business and IT need to make choices together.

Making those decisions requires people in the role (business analysts or product managers), it requires IT people who understand business goals, it requires business people who understand how IT is created and how to recognise the benefits, and it requires a process to keep talking and making decisions.

In this case it is wrong to think BSkyB can just throw the problem ‘over the wall’ to EDS. And it is wrong of EDS to expect fully defined requirements documents up front. But, the nature of competitive business encourages people to take this approach.

I don’t know how EDS and BSkyB structured this project but here some advice:

• Start small: IT projects are often far too big, if you can find the real benefit it then stick to delivering just that, keep it small. Inside every large project is a small one struggling to get out.
• Requirements have to be driven by the customer, who needs to set business objectives and vision. However further elaboration needs to come from close collaboration between the business and the supplier.
• If you intend to build a ‘state of the art’ system, and gain competitive advantage then know your enemy, know what state of the art means and know what other systems do.

Finally, make sure you are building your ‘state of the art’ system for the right reason. Will a state of the art system really deliver competitive advantage? Maybe you don’t need ‘state of the art’, maybe you just need to use an ‘average’ system better. Maybe you don’t need to build a system at all, maybe you can just take one off the shelf. This won’t be cheap - especially if you have to customise it - but it will be a lot cheaper than starting from scratch.