The fog of war is a phrase that is used to describe the confusion and uncertainty that is encountered during a military conflict when information becomes inaccurate, incomplete and distorted. This fog makes it difficult, if not impossible, for leaders to get a detailed or precise view of what is happening on the ground, which can often lead to a false impression of the current position, and contribute to poor decision-making about how to react to events as they unfold.
I was reminded of this phrase recently when reading an article about a major cloud migration being undertaken by Accenture of behalf of Rio Tinto, the Australian mining giant. Whilst Rio Tinto management and Accenture were hailing the implementation - which involved migrating 24 core systems to the cloud - as a success, company "insiders" were saying that the project was "late and causing chaotic problems and unplanned outages."
A spokesman for the mining company described the migration as a "well-planned and well-managed process, executed with full support from Rio Tinto business units and functions." Meanwhile the insiders have cited "numerous outages" and also said that "some systems had not been able to be transferred into the cloud environment as planned." An email from Rio Tinto's Global Business Services management described how staff had been unable to access the company's enterprise risk management systems and that the team had been "stood down" while an alternative solution was established." But Accenture has been quoted as saying that any downtime was "part of the plan" and not an indication of wider problems.
According to military experts, the fog of war is inevitable. The same is undoubtedly true for major IT implementations. Such large-scale projects are, just like war, complex events, with multiple variables and moving parts, a range of unknown factors that can only be understood and addressed once the action begins, and, of course, lots of stakeholders that have their own needs, priorities and agendas. Conflicting opinions, information and experiences are, therefore, not unusual. And, more often than not, the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes being reported.
If not managed correctly, this fog can cause long-lasting damage to a CIO's reputation and credibility within the organisation. Claims and counter-claims about the success or otherwise of a new solution can also have a negative impact on the IT function's morale as well as consuming management time that could otherwise be spent on dealing with real issues.
So, as well as doing everything they can to minimise the potential for confusion and misinformation, CIOs and their teams have to accept that fog will appear at some stage during a large project. And they need to know how to deal with it when it does.
As always, communication is key to ensuring a successful project and to avoiding, or at least minimising, the potential for fog. Even the most successful project that delivers every requirement, on time and within budget, will suffer from fog if there has been poor communication between IT and the rest of the organisation. In the absence of clear information and regular dialogue, stakeholders will form their own views about what is going to be delivered, how and when. And, as soon as this happens, it becomes almost impossible for the project to be seen as a success regardless of how well it is delivered. Managing expectations - which can only be achieved through good communication - is vital to whether an implementation is seen as being successful.
But things will not always go to plan in a large project and there will be unexpected problems along the way. Solutions may not work exactly as expected when they are deployed into the live environment, a small detail may have been overlooked, risks may materialise, or planning estimates may be inaccurate. At this point, as well as good and open communication, another factor comes into play: relationships. CIOs that have good relationships with their stakeholders will find it a lot easier to manage and control the fallout from incidents that result in unplanned downtime, delayed delivery, etc. When things are going wrong in an implementation, it is often the personal reputation, credibility and behaviour of the CIO that determines how other executives respond to the problems and whether their teams work with or against IT in dealing with the issues.
One of the ways the military deals with the fog of war is to allow leaders on the ground, who are by definition closer to the action and hence less likely to be blinded by the fog, to make tactical decisions in response to events. However, this can only work if those on the ground have been trained in military tactics and understand the overall goal or objective of the battle. This is something that CIOs can learn from: the fog of an IT implementation can be managed through a willingness to delegate, ensuring the project team understand the vision for the implementation, and by training staff so that they are equipped to assess a changing situation and identify suitable responses.
Fog is inevitable in a large technology project. However, good communication, strong relationships and a project team that can react to events on the ground will limit the amount of fog and the impact it has on the project, the CIO and the IT department.