Monday, 29 September 2014

Risk management - a conflict for iMedia companies

Trying to get a snapshot of risk management in digital development proved difficult and confusing. I was looking to find information about specific risks in project development but they didn’t surface; what did is actually more strategic and thought-provoking.

There is a complete spectrum of risks for tech companies ranging from lack of innovation to the higher risk of insolvency because of not managing financial risks. It’s a minefield. You find examples of larger companies valuing the smaller entrepreneurial risk-taking tech companies because they themselves are too big and slow to evolve business solutions that suit the fast-changing consumer environment. They appreciate the iterative progress/test cycle and user-lead style projects that give faster results. Hence the Accelerator Centre in West London where 11 tech companies have been selected by Barclays Bank and Techstars to invent future financial services. Another such partnership is Centrica and Hive where ‘normal management structures don’t apply’. General Electric (GE) outsource innovation including offering open competitions for ways to improve their products. Get more information on these from the BBC Business News (9 September 2014).

So from risk takers and their culture to the more traditional ‘control risks or else’ cultures. R3 – an insolvency trade body – has reported that tech firms are at higher risk of insolvency because of their failure to ‘factor in the full costs of development or assess the competition’. Apparently tech firms in the North-East are most vulnerable which explains the news item in the Lancashire Evening Post, Tech Sector has high number of firms at risk (29 September 2014).

The key word from the last paragraph was ‘cultures’. The ‘soft risks’ or ‘culture’ of a company are beginning to get serious recognition as a possible financial drain – a hard risk factor! The Dialogue blog (16 September 2014) Soft risk: how culture can fail business, by Richard Finn, gives interesting examples of where a culture misaligned with business purpose has had serious consequences. This is BIG, since he calls for senior management to create a new senior management position (non-executive director) and committee to manage soft risks! How does your company’s culture line up? Richard cites six consequences of a ‘bad’ culture as: business under-achievement, poor products, poor service, damaged investor sentiment, reputation destruction, and talent flight. Well, I’m sure no company wants those.

We’ll end with a conundrum. As I said, this risk assessment seems to follow a circular path. Enter the larger tech company that is targeting bespoke development companies in the government sector: KnowledgeKube from Mercato Solutions. They cite bespoke solutions as costing more and taking more time to develop. They offer a platform and services approach that will drive down costs and give government departments more control. It sells itself on being able to ‘remove the risk associated with bespoke development.

So you see the conflict between the start of this blog where innovation and risk-taking are valued and this last example where bespoke development is itself risky and to be avoided.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Lolcats and the lexicon of being online

When we put together the various editions of our book, one of the things we included was a glossary. Abbreviations, acronyms and slang terms are a part of any subject and can often be used by specialists as a shorthand. Unfortunately, if you don't know the shorthand then this can make it impossible to understand a subject that you actually may be able to follow were you to speak the language. Hence glossaries.

Our glossary is getting a little elderly now, although it should still be useful.

An altogether more up-to-date and wide-ranging glossary was recently published by the Guardian, modestly called The ultimate internet glossary. It goes from 4chan to Zoopla (or is it Zynga) and includes lots of cats.

What is it about cats? It has been jokingly suggested that problems with the internet could be fixed if they took all the cats off it. This lets me mention Henri le chat noir and, en passant. (Wasn't Lolcats a song by the Cure? That's a QTWTAIN by the way.)

As with all things in life you can Google glossaries. They range from the technical (from and Matisse Enzer) to the basic but undoubtedly useful (such as this glossary for 'older adults' from the American National Institute on Ageing).

If you feel like contributing to the daunting task of keeping such a thing up to date then there is a Wikipedia glossary, however at the time of writing it is somewhat poor IMHO and in need of TLC.


Friday, 12 September 2014

Pointing the finger – blame and risks in digital project management

There are many aspects during a digital project that do not go according to plan; even if you had one. Project Management is about control but, particularly in digital projects, your clients and your team can often seem to conspire against the progress of the project. Your management, on the other hand, are meant to be there supporting you. If this isn’t the case, you’re in trouble. Are you in a company that has an attitude of ‘sacrificial accountability’?

It is common that if and when things go wrong, someone takes the blame and resigns from his/her post. I think that most people view this as acceptable when it is clear who has had the overall accountability during the time that the problems brewed and blew up. But looking for the sacrificial lamb is another thing entirely as John Linwood, ex BBC, found out. He was Chief Technology Officer for the BBC when the plug was pulled on a £100m Digital Media Initiative project. He took the BBC to a tribunal for firing him and won because they believed that the Senior Management were dodging the blame and placing it on Linwood.

John Gough in Avoiding Blame for Botched Projects, (undated 2014), summarises the Linwood story and points to internal company politics as a driver. We all know company politics and how it can invidiously dominate decision-making. How’s your company for this?

The risk of being sacked as the accountable one is real but companies are beginning to understand that they need to get on top of risks before they cause trouble. Enter the Digital Risk Officer. Have you heard of them or seen a job advert for one? You may well find you have to relate to them in your client companies. Apparently, these people will be hot news in 2015 according to Gartner research 2014 . Now this is in response to security issues and technology as companies realise that with the plethora of technology-driven channels of communication and the increasing use of them by the public at large, that the risks of service failures increase. It will be interesting to see if these officers are increasingly used as easy target sacrificial lambs by their companies when things go wrong! But if you meet them as part of the client-mix, you can be sure that they’ll make strong demands of you making your job more accountable too.

Now you’re in the mindset of blame, perhaps you need to become aware of a nasty blow coming from an unseen upper-cut! This has crept in from the side of a legal ruling about blame in a service contract. The original case was about pipes and little to do with digital project management. (See, The Best Practice Group, Your Service Provider’s Duty to Warn, by Alan Watton (23 January 2012) But as the ruling can be generalised to all service contracts, we need to take note. The judgement found that the contractor (expert) should have warned the client about the possible risks in the project because they as the experts were in the position to know the possible impact on the clients while the clients as non-experts – and the very reason for using the contractors – were not in the position to understand the impact.

The key concept is ‘a duty to warn’ about the risks pre-contract and during the life of the project and exists independently of written clauses. You have to account for what your advice does and does not cover. You have to be clear in writing about what your advice does not cover and what your proposed solution does not cover including any possible consequential impacts. Well, that’s a tall order in our uncertain digital world. You need to throw this concept to the legal bods who draw up your contracts as service providers. Now if you are too small to have a legal section, check if the templates you use for contracts cover this angle and raise any queries with your management.

You’ll probably do a lot of ‘warning’ without realising it. So, for example, if you recommend that your client should do some pilot testing with users to check the system out and assess its impact on the project objectives pointing out to them the pros and cons of this, then you are warning them of the possible negative effects/risks. If they take the decision not to do this, they accept responsibility and accountability. Likewise, you’ll probably be recommending various types of testing from stability to security, for example. You can indicate the pros and cons of all of them, so if the client chooses to ignore your advice - because of lack of budget maybe - then you have fulfilled the ‘duty of warning’ principle.
Blame is not a nice topic in any field. Better to be prepared though.