National Blood Service IT implementation confounds poor prognosis

The man in charge of delivering the new IT system for the National Blood Service explains how, against the expectations of many,...

The man in charge of delivering the new IT system for the National Blood Service explains how, against the expectations of many, he did so on time and under-budget

Julia Vowler

Having responsibility for a critical, national IT project that everyone thinks is going to fail is like performing a life-saving operation while other hospital staff are pointing their thumbs down and booing.

Such was the situation in which Neil Reynolds and his team found themselves when they were project-managing the new £6m, 4,000-user, 650-million-data-item National Blood Service IT system, Pulse. Everyone - Computer Weekly included - seemed to be baying for their blood.

That was because the prognosis for Pulse was not good. First, the project had to integrate and replace 12 existing - and different - systems from nine different suppliers, spread across 12 regions. Secondly, it had to face internal political battles as the regional authorities resisted centralisation. Thirdly, because it was the National Blood Service, it was literally a life-or-death system. And fourthly, it was the first public sector IT project to "enjoy" the Private Finance Initiative (PFI).

Before work could start, there were delays. Not only did PFI mean that the 20-page business case had to be rewritten as 400 pages, but the contract took an age to award.

"Then the hard work started," says Reynolds. The strategy was one of tight control mixed with pragmatism, with a dash of applied psychology.

Pulse opted for collapsing the 12 existing systems into a more manageable total of three regional systems, linked by a wide area network, all sharing a common database.

Even so, "it felt like a war sometimes - we felt the resistance out there," recalls Reynolds. Nevertheless, the team ploughed on, through an eight-month roll-out and a total of five versions.

"Our deadlines were seen as unrealistic," comments Reynolds. "There were lots of articles in the press." But, he says, "Major milestones were not compromised - nothing short of a disaster would delay a go-live date."

This stringency tapped a psychological trait. Even the system's opponents "didn't want to be the first to miss a deadline".

In the end, he says, it all came together - on time and under-budget. And Reynolds remains pragmatic. His definition of success is "the postponement of failure".

And his advice to the world? "Do something amazing today - give blood. Call 0345-711711."

Neil Reynolds' career in IT spans 20 years at Courtaulds, management consultancy and facilities management, before becoming director of IT at the West Midlands Blood Transfusion Service in 1992. He was seconded to Pulse as programme manager.

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