Why John Linwood is not to blame for BBC’s failed technology project

Analysis

Why John Linwood is not to blame for BBC’s failed technology project

Caroline Baldwin

Former BBC chief technology officer John Linwood has won his case for unfair dismissal over the failed £100m Digital Media Initiative (DMI) project, but what lessons does his case offer for businesses managing large-scale IT projects?

When Linwood was sacked following the dismal failure of DMI, many in the IT community felt he had been hung out to dry by the broadcaster.

John_Linwood_BBC_CTO.jpg

Now an employment tribunal has ruled that Linwood was indeed a scapegoat, and was forced to shoulder the blame for the failed project.

DMI was intended to link digital production tools with a central, digital archive for BBC staff, but was scrapped in 2013 after nearly £100m of TV licence payers’ money had been spent, and the BBC blamed Linwood and the technology for not being up to scratch.

After what Linwood has called a “horrendous” year, his name has finally been cleared, with the tribunal declaring that the BBC had been unfair in dismissing him in its desperation to find a “fall guy”.

Linwood consistently denied that he was fully responsible for the failure of the project, saying he had been made “the fall guy” when actually some of the technology was in working order. After the employment tribunal found in his favour, documents from the court provide the clearest insight yet into how he came to leave the BBC.

In February, Linwood was scrutinised by the Public Accounts Committee as he again defended the DMI's working technology.

DMI TIMELINE

October 2006 Approval of £2.8m for initial mobilisation of Digital Media Initiative (DMI)

March 2007 Approval of £6.6m for design of DMI

January 2008 BBC Trust approves total budget of £82m

February 2008 Siemens wins £79m fixed-price contract to design and deliver DMI by May 2009

July 2009 BBC and Siemens terminate contract

September 2009 BBC brings project in-house with target completion date of February 2011

June 2010 BBC Trust approves wider roll-out with revised budget of £133.6m

August 2010 Procurement delays push back DMI timetable by five months, with final delivery date set at July 2011

January 2011 National Audit Office reports BBC has made good progress on straightforward parts of the system, but faces challenge in the following stages

February 2011 BBC tells Public Accounts Committee it is on track to deliver DMI technology by summer 2011

February 2012 Project management office grades the status of DMI as ‘red’ and suggests termination or re-evaluation of the project

May 2012 Executive board requests review of costs, benefits and timetable. Whistleblower contacts the BBC Trust saying NAO, PAC and the trust may have been misled about the DMI’s progress

November 2012 Most work on DMI stopped pending review

May 2013 Programme permanently stopped and CTO John Linwood suspended

July 2013 Linwood sacked by BBC

May/June 2014 Employment tribunal

August 2014 Tribunal finds BBC dismissed Linwood unfairly

Source up to May 2013: National Audit Office, based on various published and unpublished sources provided

He said the BBC had never stated that the technology was one of the reasons for terminating the project. The corporation said its business vision had changed and the DMI was no longer valid. “Not once did they say there were technology issues,” Linwood said at the time.

“They wrote off more than they should have done,” he added. “They wrote off software that was working and infrastructure that was working. These were written off because the business decided not to use them.”

The employment tribunal documents further reinforce evidence from the PAC that the DMI's demise was more a failure of the business to take ownership of a technology project, than of the delivery of the technology itself.

The tribunal put forward three potential reasons why the BBC dismissed Linwood, which were:

  • The executive board had lost confidence in Linwood as CTO as a result of the failure of DMI.
  • Gross misconduct, as stated in Linwood’s dismissal letter.
  • A complete breakdown in trust and confidence in Linwood as CTO (again in the dismissal letter) because only he believed in the project, while all other BBC management said it should be scrapped.

IT is often blamed for the failure of projects like the DMI, and the BBC director of operations at the time, Dominic Coles, had told Linwood the BBC's executive board had lost confidence in him as CTO. Linwood was given an ultimatum of resigning or facing a disciplinary hearing, which could lead to dismissal. He chose to stay and defend the DMI technology.

But the tribunal judges said that a reasonable employer, having lost confidence in the CTO, might have made its position clearer with Linwood and given him six months’ notice in the form of gardening leave.

In Linwood’s 2012 appraisal, when the DMI project had slipped into a ‘red’ risk rating, he was told by his boss, former chief operating officer Caroline Thompson, that he was exceeding expectations.

Finger of blame

Much of Linwood’s case against the BBC was based on the belief that it had needed to find a responsible party and get rid of them, and Linwood was the obvious target.

The tribunal was told that at a BBC Trust Finance Committee meeting on 8 May 2013, discussions concerned the prospect of shutting down the DMI and writing off its assets – and that finding a scapegoat was of the utmost importance.

The tribunal noted that the committee was under “very vivid instruction to find the culprit” and it also concluded that all senior individuals involved in the DMI programme were worried about being made “the fall guy”.

The tribunal noted: “This 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 was also made clear that the timing of events, soon after the Jimmy Savile affair, meant that the BBC was under even more pressure to find someone to blame. An email sent between Coles and chief creative officer Pat Younge on the evening of 8 May included a reference to Linwood as “spinning in the wind for now”.

Serious failings

When the tribunal upheld Linwood’s claim that he had been made the “fall guy”, it also found that the BBC had made some serious failings in its HR processes when dismissing the CTO.

The tribunal was astonished to learn that, before his dismissal hearing, letters were sent to Linwood by head of HR, finance and business Nick Pascazio regarding the disciplinary hearing. The tribunal said Pascazio had a “cavalier disregard for any of the accepted norms of fair disciplinary process”, and failed to provide Linwood with important documents concerning the hearing in a timely fashion. At one point, Pascazio reportedly expected Linwood to go through 16,000 documents just one working day before the hearing.

Again, these actions were blamed on the BBC’s objective of finding a scapegoat, as well as the communications team trying to present the information to the outside world in the best way possible.

Dismissal hearing

Linwood told the tribunal his internal dismissal hearing was a “sham” and that the outcome was predetermined. And the tribunal agreed, deeming the way the BBC dismissed him as unfair, calling the proceedings “wholly inadequate”.

The tribunal concluded unanimously that the BBC did not conduct a reasonable investigation into Linwood’s misconduct, and that the failure to close the DMI project was not enough justification.

HR director Clare Dyer took over from Coles as an impartial person to conduct the disciplinary hearing, but the tribunal noted that Dyer had handled only 11 dismissals in her HR career and sometimes appeared overwhelmed by the proceedings, not reading some of the key documentation and focusing only on the witnesses.

The tribunal suggested Dyer needed to seek accountability for the project’s failure, but that she could not separate finding someone to blame for the DMI from Linwood’s personal liability for gross misconduct.

“She wanted to remain focused on the ‘big picture’ rather than the detail,” the tribunal concluded. “She appeared to regard the detail and the documents as a tiresome and unduly time-consuming distraction from the task in hand.”

Take responsibility

During Linwood’s dismissal procedure, other witnesses told Dyer that Linwood was not the only person who should take responsibility, but Linwood was the only person to defend the project’s technology viability, which led to his dismissal.

The BBC has stated that it believed it acted responsibly at the time, and it is disappointed with the outcome of the tribunal.

But Linwood was not completely cleared of blame. The tribunal said he had contributed 15% to his own dismissal, for denying all responsibility for anything other than the technology, which the tribunal found to be unrealistic (5%), and the fact that he was part of the steering group and naturally bore a share of the responsibility (10%).  

Linwood has not claimed to bear no responsibility for the failure of DMI, just that he should not have been made the only “fall guy”. 

This case might be seen as an illustration of how today's business leaders need to take ownership of major IT projects and develop a close working relationship with those in charge of the technology, so that any problems can be detected quickly and steps taken before a culture of blame can develop.


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