frustrated woman on a computer
PHOTO: JESHOOTS.COM

The Canadian government’s Phoenix payroll system is no more. It was supposed to cost about C$300 million and deliver tremendous efficiencies. Instead, it has cost C$1 billion and delivered nothing but pain and disaster.

"As the government has repeatedly acknowledged, IBM is fulfilling its obligations on the Phoenix contract, and the software is functioning as intended," an IBM spokesperson told El Reg in March 2018. "IBM continues to work in partnership with the government's efforts to resolve the project's issues, and we remain committed to the project's overall success."

So, according to IBM, the software functioned as intended. Everything went to plan. "What I can guarantee is that we have a system that is working,” a U.S. Healthcare.gov official stated after the disastrous rollout of its website in 2013. “We are going to improve the speed of that system," she added.

Nobody who has any experience of enterprise software would be in any way shocked at such disasters. They come with monotonous regularity. At least 50 percent of IT systems fail, and most of those that ‘succeed’ deliver cruel and inhuman punishment to the employees they are supposed to serve.

These failures and disasters are not accidental. They are a deliberate result of a senior management culture that is contemptuous of employees and an IT culture that sees its primary job as to help fire as many employees as possible. From this highly toxic mix comes enterprise systems designed to fulfill contracts and meet management targets for firing people. Who these systems are never designed for is the employees who are supposed to use them. That should be an incredible statement but instead it is brutally, monotonously true.

“We thought we had all the necessary buy-in, but the sales force didn’t want it,” CIO Chris McMasters explained to CIO in March 2018 about yet one more car crash implementation of a sales management system. “There was an extreme amount of resistance. Top management was on board.”

Of course, top management was on board. Why wouldn’t they be when they have been presented a fictional nirvana business case? All those people you’ll be able to fire. All those management bonuses you’ll be able to get. All those tremendous savings. And how well it will look on your resume. Just make sure you’ve changed job before it’s actually launched and reality kicks in.

Globally, the culture of senior management is one of contempt for customers and employees. Of course, marketing and communications will spin a wholly different story. When you see loyal customers as an opportunity for overcharging, and potential customers as prey to be tricked by emotional advertising, how could you ever respect them? When you see employees as a cost, a resource to be replaced by technology where possible, how could you ever want to design technology for them that is easy to use?

We must change the toxic culture of senior management. We need managers who actually care about making it easy and fast for employees to do their jobs. And the funny thing is that those who care about ease-of-use will deliver real productivity, real efficiency and much more successful organizations.