More ICM

Who would have thought “Integrated Case Management” could be such an interesting topic! But then, who would have thought that you could spend $180M on a technology project.

An Ugly Duckling

The ICM demonstration video is a great way to get a feel for the reality of the project. Remember, this is the best possible face they can put on the system, it’s the public demo video.

A non-technical observer, used to the wonders of the consumer web, might wonder, “why is that $180M software so damned ugly?”

The reason it is ugly, is that it is built using a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system called Seibel. Seibel was the market leader in CRM during the late 1990s (starting to understand the look-and-feel now?) and was purchased by Oracle Corporation in 2006. Suffice to say, the Glory Days of Seibel are now far in the past.

Customers or Clients?

A non-technical observer might also wonder, “why is our social services case management system built using a ‘Customer Relationship Management’ software?”

The cynic would answer that it’s another example of the corporatisation of government, but the cynic would be wrong. CRM software was “invented” (“evolved” is probably a better term) because Fortune 500 companies wanted to ensure all branches of their business had complete information about their customers throughout the lifecycle of the customer relationship.

A “customer” starts out as a sales lead, eventually becomes a prospect, and is (hopefully) sold some product. The sales department handles all this. The product is shipped to the customer. The shipping department handles this, and it would be good for them to know any special conditions the sales team recorded in their talks with the customer. On delivery, the customer might have some questions about the product, and would contact the support department. In order to provide good support, the support department shoud have access to all the previously gathered information about the customer and their purchase. After a few years, it makes sense to contact the customer to inquire about purchasing a new model. The inside sales department would do this, using all the customer history to craft the best possible pitch.

At this point, even the non-technical observer should notice the similarity between the customer management problem and the social services application. Multiple departments, sharing information to provide the best possible service. Clients being contacted by different branches of an organization with the system helping ensure the left and right hands know what they are doing.

CRM #fail

That’s the theory. You merge all your departmental databases into one master CRM database, provide uniform access across the enterprise and magic occurs!

The practice, unfortunately, has not always been positive, as the Wikipedia article on “CRM” makes abundently clear. The very first section of the article is “Challenges”, which are as follows:

2 Challenges
2.1 Complexity
2.2 Poor usability
2.3 Fragmentation
2.4 Business reputation
2.5 Security, privacy and data security concerns

Anything sound familiar? It’s a prescient catalogue of the complaints and concerns we are hearing about ICM.

The reason CRM systems are complex and hard to use is that they have been evolved from the specific purpose of managing the sales process, to the general purpose of managing all customer information across a complex organization, while trying to minimize custom user interface programming.

The $180M Off-the-shelf Solution

For reasons that escape my understanding, IT managers hate programming. They gravitate readily towards “off the shelf” solutions, pieces of software than can be purchased, easily installed and set up, and left to run. This makes sense for well-understood pieces of functionality, like word processors and spreadsheets.

Where things start to go sideways is when “off the shelf” mania spreads into more and more murky problem spaces. As “off the self” solutions become more generic, they require substantial “configuration” stages before they can be left to run. (Astute cynics will note that “off the shelf” solutions always require “configuration” and never need “programming”.)

I have to admit, case management feels kind of like an off-the-shelf problem. It’s just paper shuffling, it’s the kind of thing 100s of other jurisdictions do. Rather than building a custom case management system, it makes sense to buy an existing one, right?

Yes and no, apparently. If you’re going to spend $180M configuring your new system, the savings you got by starting from a “off the shelf” solution start to seem pretty illusary, particularly if one of the drawbacks you accept by using “off the shelf” software is a more complex user experience than you could have provided with standard programming tools.

A $180M Black Box

If an “off the shelf solution that requires $180M in configuration” sounds like a contradiction in terms, how about “a solution that requires no programming that noone can understand”.

Victoria is absolutely lousy with software developers who understand Java and SQL and HTML and JavaScript, the kinds of tools you might use to build a case management system “from scratch”.

However, there are very few IT people in Victoria who know how to configure Seibel. In fact, there are so few Seibel people in Victoria that, in order to get access to a top notch Siebel team, the ICM project has been flying in experts from abroad. They stay in Victoria for the week, then return home on the weekend.

Unfortunately, the choice of Seibel doesn’t just affect staffing availability, it also affects the future flexibility of the ICM system.

Seibel is one big, tightly coupled piece of software. Interfaces depend on database structures and configurations. Upgrades will mean upgrading everything at once: in the presence of $180M worth of configuration and customization, I wonder if the Seibel software will ever get upgraded. The risk of failure will be too high. That means that the system you see today is the system you’ll see 10 years from now. Do you know what “good” technology will look like in 10 years? Me neither. But it won’t look like ICM.

The End?

Major IT projects never fail. Never. At least, not until the CIO moves on to a new job. Then the truth can be spoken.

The industry experience with Seibel has been so bad, that “CRM Magazine” actually writes of a “Seibel effect”:

Fair or not, Siebel Systems—the CRM pioneer later acquired by Oracle—is often considered the poster child for failed CRM system implementations. I’ve heard dozens of war stories about overaggressive and excessively large CRM implementations that did not come close to realizing their promised benefits—and wasted a lot of money …. The so-called “Siebel effect” is a fear of large, expensive, and often very lengthy projects intended to revamp all aspects of an enterprise’s customer-facing solutions.

With luck, BC’s “Seibel effect” will cause us to re-value building small, interoperable, systems. Big, reliable systems (like Amazon, or Facebook, or Netflix) can be engineered from small, comprehensible, interoperable pieces, using smaller, more flexible teams. And if we encourage in-house technicial expertise, we’ll give government the deep technical understanding it needs to evolve systems over time, instead of committing to failure-prone IT mega-projects like ICM.

Let’s give it a try. It can’t be worse than the alternative.