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Bye-bye, IBM

Better luck next time.

The Department of Information Resources appears to be giving up on IBM — once and for all. The agency isn’t formally terminating its contract with the information technology and business consulting giant, which was supposed to coordinate the data centers and disaster recovery operations of 27 state agencies. But state officials sent a letter to IBM [Wednesday] saying they have no other choice to rebid the contract because they believe the company has failed to meet almost all of its obligations.

May the next outsourcer have better success. I mock, because it’s easy and fun, but outsourcing is hard. There’s a million reasons, and a million ways, things can go wrong. Still, it’s important to keep the mockery in mind for the next time some state official makes a grandiose pronouncement about how much money an outsourcing arrangement will save. Betting against it is the more likely winner.

One more thing about outsourcing in general, from the Statesman story.

IBM ran into problems from the very beginning, slowing progress and fueling frustration among the agencies. IBM has laid responsibility for the persistent problems at the feet of the participating state agencies, in particular, the Department of Information Resources.

“Ceding control of their individual (information technology) environments in favor of a centralized, common system was (and continues to be) unpopular with the constituent agencies, and without strong leadership from DIR, those agencies not only failed to cooperate, but in many cases actively resisted the project,” IBM wrote in a letter last week.

The main conceit of this kind of project is that you can save money by centralizing and standardizing. And that’s certainly true, although in some ways it’s basically a tautology. If you force everyone onto the same desktop, and you force all of your server-based applications onto the same back end, you will certainly spend less money on your IT. If that means that some specialized applications that a handful of people used to do their jobs are no longer available, or if it means that some specialized processes that were used to manage or present data are no longer allowed, well, that’s just the cost of saving money. One size seldom fits all, but you can pretend it does if it makes the bottom line prettier.

Anyway. Here’s a more recent letter from IBM disputing what DIR has to say. Again, I don’t know who’s right or wrong in this fight. I strongly suspect both sides have some validity to their claims. What I do know is that any outsourcing project is hard enough if everyone works together well. When communications break down like this, they’re impossible.

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