The Challenger Disaster: a lesson in the reality of technology implementation

Posted by Kate Cartwright on November 8, 2013

On the Sunday evenings that I sit down and relax in front of the TV I normally veer towards the couch potato safe – a good old costume drama or a bit of US crime to gently tease or numb the brain, rather than task it.

The other Sunday was different. Surfing the channels we did land on aBBC drama, but this time it was about Space Shuttle Challenger that broke apart 73 seconds into its flight on January 28, 1986, leading to the deaths of its seven crew members. This film, whilst incorporating newsreel footage of the actual disaster, focused mainly on the Rogers Commission set up to investigate the incident based, in part, on the book “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” by the Nobel prize winning scientist Richard Feynman, who sat on the commission.

It turned out to be a gripping drama come political thriller which was so cleverly delivered I was hooked. Even to the point of watching the following bio-documentary about Feynman himself. A truly fascinating man indeed. Renowned, and rightly recognised, for his work he succeeded also in popularising physics and making it extremely accessible. Had my science teacher been in anyway like him who knows what might have happened!

His role in that commission, his determination and quest to source the truth and ultimately how he delivered his findings through a simple physical experiment had me thinking. This should be a clear lesson to all of us who have to explain potentially complex technology solutions to business users and lay people. Feynman’s illustration, explained in a straightforward and totally understandable manner, made the reason for the disaster clear to all.

Similarly, business users and executives want to understand how their processes, customer experience and revenues will improve through a technology implementation and easy to use software, and not to be blinded by complexity, over technical details or geekiest bit of the technology that has no real relevance to them. As Albert Einstein is professed to have said “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”.

We can take a lot more from Feynman’s writing and one particularly comes to mind, again related to Challenger. In his personal observations offered as an Appendix to the commission report the closing statement reads:

“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled”

Again it made me think that, although not a life and death scenario such as Challenger, we can draw a parallel to our industry. Whilst much understanding, creativity and hard work goes into encouraging businesses executives to purchase software licenses followed by rewards, press releases and the like, the real success is in the implementation of the software and the realisation of the promised benefits.

Far too often we hear of multi-million pound IT deals that were to revolutionise the way an organisation works only to be shelved or delayed for one reason or another – recent examples being the BBC’s Digital Media Initiative and the government’s Universal Credits. Both being quoted as overly ambitious and the latter being linked with another life or death scenario having been labelled as a “Titanic-sized IT disaster!!

The next new thing in technology is always and sometimes too rapidly on the horizon receiving its due hype, and rightly so in a lot of cases. The reality check should be however what these technologies can offer the business and or the consumer by way of service improvement. Will delay cost more than just additional consulting fees? Or will charging ahead irrespective cost more in the long run.

Mobility and Cloud solutions are just new ways of storing data, hosting processes and accessing information. They might give us smart new gadgets, funky apps and cheaper routes to ownership, however, the reality is if the underlying data and processes are still incomplete or broken the business will not benefit. Due consideration must be given to the reality of the project rather than the hype. What will work in one environment is not necessarily true for the next. The business itself must be prepared for change and to embrace what the technology can offer – for them.

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