People Kill People. Computers Don’t.

27th June 2008

I had to cringe when reading this article on the BBC website today: it seems like yet another silly attempt to drag down the reputation of the people and companies involved in trying to support the work of healthcare workers in the UK’s NHS. Another example of poor partisan journalism from this sad organisation.

The subject of the story was delay that was caused to the treatement of cancer patients in the process of migrating to a new computer system in Bart’s hospital. The “journalist” who wrote the article quoted a statement from a poorly constructed report that had been submitted to the Trust Board. The statement said:

The delay was “directly attributable” to problems with switching outpatient information to the new system, a report presented to the Trust board said.

I contend that the delay was not and could not be attributed to this cause. The delay must have been the result of poor planning, including the planning for contingent responses to issues that could be expected to occur during a large scale data migration.


In much the same way that problems at Heathrow Terminal 5 were attributable, without a shadow of doubt, to poor management, poor planning, and poor project oversight, this was the result of the same sequence of failures.


It is ludicrous to suggest that computer systems cause problems. Computer systems automate processes, reliably, as they are designed to do. They do not make mistakes they do not deviate from what their designers and builders specify. The world at the moment suffers from a malaise that manifests as this “computer says no” attitude that “journalists” love to reinforce.


Project managers should take note of this sort of failure, along with that at Terminal 5 and start to accept accountability for their actions (or lack thereof). Project planning is about identifying the events that will occur and the events that are likely to occur. It is about managing the risks, making plans for contingencies and identifying fallback arrangements.


The UK has a poor history of good project managment in my experience. The IT sector currently has the notion that project management is taught by trainers at Prince 2 methodology courses. This could not be further from the truth. I am repeatedly encountering people who consider themeselves project managers simply because they have completed one of these courses but who have little if any understanding of how projects are managed, the purpose of the methodology, their roles in project managment, and what it takes to support businesses in bringing home the bacon.


Just a thought. Imagine if air traffic controllers came to work and said “look we are so busy  planning that we will not be able to do any planning of flight paths this morning, just take off and land yourselves while we develop a plan.”


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