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A Billion Dollar Failed Software Implementation- Why?

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Last week, the New York Times published an article, Billion-Dollar Flop: Air Force Stumbles on Software Plan (paid subscription or free metered view), authored by Randall Stross, professor of business at San Jose State University. We found the article highly disturbing because it describes the failed attempts of the United States Air Force to implement a new and long overdue modernized logistics system.

Last month, this military branch canceled a six year long effort to implement the new software system after spending more than $1 billion dollars of taxpayer money.  The Times article described the software as commercial based, off-the shelf software.  (vendors are named in the article)  Also noted: “When the Air Force realized that it would cost another $1 billion just to achieve one-quarter of the capabilities original planned- and that even then the system would not be fully ready before 2020- it decided to decamp.”

Can you echo the words- DESTRUCTIVE SCOPE CREEP!

Apparently this program has had failed efforts to restrict the scope many times, trying to narrow the sheer size of requirements. According to author Stross, there was no single accountable program leader and managers were not able to impose 18 to 24 month required program deadlines that the Department of Defense mandates.

What is mind boggling is that all of the parties involved, military, government, private industry, actually tolerated this situation to get to the described state. We might all speculate on the various motivations for either continued employment, billing hours or whatever. To be blunt- this program should not have in any shape or form reached this state without some sober checkpoints and realization that this was not going in the direction of standard processes and packaged software.

What’s more disturbing, multiple U.S. military and government agencies are in need of modern logistics processes and yet the track record for software and change management implementation efforts is marginal at best.  The Air Force itself must now continue to depend on a legacy logistics system that originated in the 1970’s.

Private industry has garnered its share of previous painful learning regarding multi-million dollar big-bang software implementation projects that ultimately failed to see the light of original scope or intent. Some brought businesses to their knees, with painful consequences. That learning is available to any implementation team today, including U.S. government agencies.

We seriously doubt that in light of all of this previous learning and the current state of software options and services frameworks, any major public or private company would tolerate multi-year spending in a major software implementation effort without milestone and budget accountability.

It is sad to keep constantly reading the highly touted appointments of U.S. government agency CIO’s or technology program chiefs that promise to leverage the methods of modern IT productivity benefits across the U.S. government.  Either they are not be listened to, or existing agencies feel emboldened to just keep fostering the status quo of bureaucracy.

As U.S. taxpayers, we damn well expect more accountability.

Bob Ferrari

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