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McAdams On: BBC, Digital Disaster and Eisenhower

MULTIPLE DIMENSIONS — Three disparate news items recently struck me as congruent. One described the flame-out of the BBC’s Digital Media Initiative. The second—a D-Day story, and the third, a Slashdot item about IT mismanagement.

The $150 million BBC fail is shaking more trees than a derecho. IEEE Spectrum’s Robert N. Charette reports that British lawmakers want a word with former BBC chief, now head of The New York Times, Mark Thompson, who appears to have omitted significant chunks of reality in his 2011 testimony for a Parliamentary audit:

“Thompson was quoted as saying that he gave his testimony ‘honestly and in good faith,’ and said, as he vigorously tossed everyone below him at the time under the bus, ‘I did so on the basis of information provided to me at the time by the BBC executives responsible for delivering the project.’”

Self-preservation, if not entirely palatable, is both instinctual and today’s beau ideal of business ethics, as opposed to the handwritten note Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower carried in his pocket June 5, 1944, as he prepared to dispatch 160,000 youngsters into one of the deadliest battles of World War II, as retold by Scott Simon of NPR. It was his speech, had the Allies lost: “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

We would be dumbfounded by those words today and likely would deride their author as a blunderer. This could be why we’re invested in CYA such that folks will put a light bulb in a chassis and call it a “breakthrough,” with all the conjured veracity of a card sharp.

Which brings us to the Slashdot piece and others like it that describe how IT hiring is hit-and-miss because non-IT people have no metric by which to gauge competency. The digital media world is still a frontier in this regard, as demonstrated disastrously at the BBC. The post mortem should not be about blame, but about each step where egos trumped rigorous planning and analysis.

And it might behoove us all to be a little more like Ike.