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£100m DMI omnifail: BBC managers' emails trawled by employment tribunal

Chief techie Linwood's unfair dismissal unearths a few gems

BBC logo 2012

Analysis The BBC last week stood by its dismissal of former technology chief John Linwood over the failed £100m digital media initiative.

The Corporation was judged to have broken the law in dismissing Linwood and reading the tribunal’s findings makes the BBC's defence difficult to accept.

According to the BBC, the tribunal “acknowledges” the BBC has lost confidence in Linwood.

The statement proved the BBC is still fighting a war it has lost: to apportion blame for a failed IT project somewhere, anywhere, rather than take it on the chin.

The tribunal found that the "culture and climate also gave rise to avoidance strategies, no doubt including, on occasion, the steering of the spotlight of blame in other directions, on the part of those who felt themselves to be in danger of association with a sinking ship".

It’s a cautionary tale for any CIO captaining a major IT project: projects that all too often go wrong for a variety of reasons, not necessary because of the captainship of the CIO.

This was the writing off of a £100m IT project spanning a decade, with layer upon layer of management, a "grand vision", a failure to control suppliers, and shifting targets. No wonder it all went wrong.

The Digital Media Initiative (DMI) was a project to build a massive tapeless archiving system, to capture and serve the Corporation's entire output and make it searchable. It began life in 2004.

Responsibility for the project was shared among different parties – there was a DMI steering group, delivery group, deployment and change group, leadership group, plus executive and sub committees.

Each group met on a different schedule and was packed out by BBC executive types - and few, if any, IT types.

Linwood was the project sponsor and Raymond Le Gue was programme director. By the time Linwood took over as CTO, DMI was already five years old.

Beginning work

Linwood started work at the BBC on 6 April, 2009, and took on a project that was already late and over-budget. By that year, outsourced supplier Siemens was terminated and DMI brought back in house.

An email from the director of future media and technology Erik Huggers, who hired Linwood, on Linwood's first day at the office was clear: DMI was in trouble, Siemens couldn’t deliver, and DMI needed strong software engineers and project managers to get landed.

Off the bat, Linwood got £27.5m back from Siemens.

What followed was supposed to be a fresh start – or at least a reboot for the project. A new deadline was set for DMI in February 2011 for the “end” of the year along with new deliverables – or at least reduced deliverables.

But by summer 2011, the wheels were coming off and it was calculated that some £19m of projected savings would be lost due to delays and "other issues".

By May 2012, Linwood was tearing his hair out, saying there was a “desperate need” for a “senior owner” from the BBC’s Vision Group to deliver the project.

But by September there was a new director general - George Entwistle – and a new project sponsor, Zarin Patel, while Linwood had a new line manager - Dominic Coles, the new director of operations.

It was not until 4 October, "once the decision to stop the project had been made", that Vision chief creative officer Pat Younge became project sponsor.

Entwistle made it clear he planned to review the “relationship” with technology but by November, Entwistle was out – thanks to the Jimmy Savile scandal. Tony Hall was only appointed as director general in April 2013.

DMI, meanwhile, had been halted a month earlier. DMI’s future was under review, pending the outcome of a review by Accenture.

But momentum was building in the organisation to cancel DMI and by April 2013 an internal BBC report called for a write-down of between £24m and £40m.

By May, the big guns were firing. Former BBC trust chairman Lord Patten attended a BBC Trust finance committee meeting on 8 May declared his “profound concern” at the massive write-off, while BBC trustee Anthony Fry promised to ‘fess up to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee that had been monitoring DMI’s chronic progress and losses. He also promised to appoint an external consultant who would establish what had gone wrong on project control and reporting.

An 'Entwistle moment'

According to the tribunal, the BBC was panicking: with Entwistle gone after just 54 days, concern was trickling down through the BBC over who’d be the "fall guy". The Tribunal noted in its conclusions:

There had been the recent Savile scandal and very adverse press coverage about high executive pay-offs, including Mr Entwistle's. The combination of these factors appeared to the Tribunal to have generated particular sensitivities, fears and anxieties on the part of senior individuals, from Mr [Chairman of the Trust Finance Committee, Anthony] Fry on the BBC Trust down through the executive and senior management, about being 'the fall guy', left 'carrying the can', being grilled by the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons, or by the media, and potentially suffering what Mr [Director of Operations Dominic] Coles described in an email as 'an Entwistle moment'.

Emails that evening between Coles and Younge following the finance committee meeting discussed fears the trust was going public on DMI and commiserations over the “horrid” time meted out to colleagues supposedly overseeing DMI.

“Sounds like a potentially [George] Entwistle moment for me," wrote Coles. Younge responded with some career advice: “You position yourself as the man who took it over, reviewed it and called time. For others to explain how it got off track, but you are clean broom.”

He added: “Linwood can just spin in the wind for now.”

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