Geek Gap Kills the Handheld Census
Imagine you’re running a very large organization. You have more than 300 million customers, dispersed geographically, and covering a wide range of ages, income levels and interests. The organization’s IT department is involved in a massive multi-year project to survey these customers and make sure they are getting the products and services they need.
To accomplish this survey, you plan to hire about 600,000 minimum-wage workers, issue them specialized handheld computers and send them out into the field. But then the project starts to go wrong. Changing requirements lead to cost overruns producing the handhelds. Then, in tests, some workers can’t figure out how to use them. You’ve got a little less than three years to get the project on its feet. So what do you do?
For the U.S. Census Bureau, the correct answer would seem to be c).
The Bureau has taken quite a bit of flak over the last couple of weeks, after it announced its plan-and after spending $595 million to have the Harris Corp. develop handheld devices census workers could carry, allowing them to collect more detailed and accurate information than ever before. Accuracy matters because census figures are used when allocating government funds and other resources by district. Census has been scolded by everyone from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to the Washington Post. And while the Census Bureau clearly has a thing or two to learn about IT project management, the handhelds clearly fell victim to some very familiar forms of geek/suit disconnect.
1. Scope Creep. In case you’ve never come across this term, it refers to the parameters of a project being expanded once the budget is set and the project is underway. The Census Bureau accused Harris of underestimating the cost of the handhelds, but Harris calmly pointed out that Census added 417 new requirements after the project was well underway. (We recommend fighting scope creep by attaching a specific dollar amount and/or delay to every added requirement.)
2. Insufficient Training. Geeks and suits alike tend to forget that any new technology requires extra effort to learn. The same was true for the handhelds, but Census appears not to have increased its training time, or even changed its training methods from the pure lecture format it had used for years.
3. No ROI Analysis. Congress made much of the added cost of fixing the handhelds. But no analysis we’ve seen tracks the added cost of not using handhelds, in terms of converting paper answers to electronic data and the larger number of temporary workers needed to complete the task-not to mention the inevitable inaccuracies that will result. Why didn’t someone at Census do the math?
4. Comfort Zones. When the handhelds started hitting obstacles, they were quickly jettisoned in favor of paper and pencils. Why? “Census Bureau officials are more comfortable addressing any such challenges through the paper process, with which they are more familiar,” according to Cheryl Janey, president of the civil business unit at Harris. That’s an important lesson for every geek trying to sell a new and improved technology: Suits cling to what they know; they fear technological change and that fear can make them quick to pull the plug on new projects-even, as in this case, ones they themselves initiated. With more than two years before the handhelds were sent into the field, couldn’t Harris have done more to make Census execs more comfortable with the concept? Unfortunately, we may never know.
To us, the whole debacle looks like one more example of how poor communication between geeks and suits leads to abandoned projects and huge financial losses. We think there were mistakes on both sides-and taxpayers lost out in the end.
To read more and participate in a discussion, please visit the Geek Gap Blog in the Business Process Expert community at https://www.sdn.sap.comhttp://www.sdn.sap.com/people/billpflegingand.mindazetlin/blog