There are various reasons for project failure. The most common—and obvious—is lack of project management discipline. The most serious—and hard to rectify—is cultural resistance to change.
It’s no secret that the FBI agents don’t like to share information, even amongst themselves. It seems to be a deeply ingrained belief at the Bureau that it’s easier to close cases when as few people as possible know the details of an investigation. And that may well be true when you’re trying to get the goods on goons such as John Gotti and his gang. But it’s a recipe for failure when the goal is to preempt a terrorist attack.
You can’t change beliefs or behaviors overnight. As much as federal agents may intellectually understand that information sharing in this new global threat scenario is good, it goes against everything they’ve always believed deep down in their guts. So a big, integrated system for sharing case information may make sense, but it probably feels to the G-men like a highway to hell.
It’s hard to run a successful IT project in such a resistant environment. “The problem at the FBI appears to be mostly cultural, and that’s orders of magnitude harder to correct than a project management problem,” says Ken Orr, head of the Ken Orr Institute and a former member of the committee that advised the FBI on its virtual case file project (see our cover story, Most Wanted: Someone to Fix the FBI’s IT).
The resistance to sharing information at the FBI has its roots in deep-seated cultural norms that are tied directly to a mission about which most agents feel quite passionate. And while it’s true that few businesses have such a strong sense of mission that their employees can rally around, culture is a fact of life in all organizations. Any CIO championing change must take culture into account. What beliefs will be challenged by a new way of doing business? What attitudes—and even emotions—must be swayed? Who can best do the swaying? And what key people need to be brought around?
This tale of trial and tribulation at the FBI brings home the fact that succeeding as a CIO takes more than technical or even business acumen. CIO Zalmai Azmi has his work cut out for him, but his chances seem better than his predecessors’. The Bureau has had almost four years to get used to the idea of sharing information, and Director Robert Mueller has set the direction from the top. Let’s hope they get it right this time.
–Abbie Lundberg, Editor in Chief [email protected]