IBM: IT failure and social media disaster

IBM's recent DB2 fiasco in the Philippines is a textbook case combining Devil's Triangle failure and Twitter disaster.

IBM's recent DB2 fiasco in the Philippines is a textbook case of Devil's Triangle relationships causing conflict between a technology provider, third-party consultants, and a customer.

Although the situation is interesting, I never expected it to bubble over onto Twitter, demonstrating poor social media practice in addition to vendor/consultant arrogance.

The Twitter connection began when I tweeted a general request seeking an expert to explain technical aspects of DB2. IBM's customer, a Philippine government agency, raised questions about DB2's suitability to task, making the technical aspect relevant:

A consultant with DB2 expertise re-tweeted my request. So far, so good:

An IBM DB2 executive responded with the implication my request was somehow wrong, unethical, or not straightforward. Yes, the tactic definitely caught my attention:

The consultant tweeted back to the IBM person, asking aloud whether my request was related to the Philippines incident:

In a message to the IBM executive, the consultant publicly disparaged the DB2 expert I located:

In response to the IBM fellow, I clarified my intentions:

I also responded directly to the consultant, expressing my indignation that he called the situation "ridiculous." In my opinion, his comment was inappropriate:

Next, I asked the IBM person for a substantive response and included my email address:

As part of an unsuccessful attempt to rectify the situation, the consultant further insults IBM's customer:

In conclusion, I again asked for comment, but neither responded:


There are two primary issues of concern:

  1. Arrogance from the consultant and IBM executive toward the customer's project
  2. Remarkably poor use of Twitter, a primary form of social media

Devil's Triangle arrogance. Whether the Philippines project failed due to customer fault or IBM inaction is completely beside the point. In fact, it's reasonably likely that the customer was primarily to blame for causing the situation through poor management. Regardless of fault, IBM's attitude toward the customer, as evidenced in this Twitter exchange, appears callous.

Social media failure. It's bad enough to criticize a customer that faces difficulty, but worse to do so in public. I asked Lois Paul, president of the public relations agency she founded over twenty years ago and which bears her name, to comment on the social media aspect of this situation.

Lois begins by questioning my interpretation of the tweet stream:

I'm not sure the flippant use of the term "ridiculous" was intended as a slur on the customer or that they could tell from your response that you were indignant about it; sarcasm is hard to pick up in a tweet.

She is certainly correct that it's difficult to interpret nuance in tweets. In my view, this amplifies the need to tweet carefully, which these guys most certainly did not.

She continues by explaining the tweets in light of IBM's social media policies:

It seems odd to me that the IBM exec would be having an exchange with the consultant about this situation rather than addressing it directly with you. Since the matter is the subject of current litigation, I would assume IBM cannot even comment on it publicly, which makes that person's involvement in this Twitter string even odder.

IBM has strict guidelines regarding its employees' use of social media, particularly as it relates to customers and this does not seem to comply with those guidelines.

If IBM had value to provide in this exchange (see their guidelines) regarding helping you understand the technical aspects of this IT failure - and they were at liberty to offer you that value - they should have done so directly. If they did not have anything to add or were constrained about responding to you, they should have been direct and said they'd like to help, but cannot due to the pending litigation or the fact that they didn't have any more details for you about what caused the failure in the first place. This would have positioned them as accessible and open from a social media perspective and would have kept your relationship with them intact.

Lois concludes by commenting directly on the risk of careless tweeting:

The consultant's flippant response is a great example of the risks inherent in Twitter. People don't view such short bursts of communication as something lasting, although it certainly is. Everything you write on Twitter can come back to haunt you. Again, if this person has information to convey, then convey it. If they don't or can't, say so. But adding drama to it by pulling IBM into the discussion and seeming to make light of the customer's plight didn't add value to anyone. It just made that consultant seem arrogant.

My take. The underlying IBM project failure is complex and fault not easy to ascertain. However, something is clearly wrong when an arcane and technical IT project failure hits the mainstream media, as it did in the Philippines. Note to IBM: I suggest you find a way to assist that stranded customer, even if it's not your fault.

The social media part of this provides a great and simple lesson we should all remember: be careful what you say in public, especially when literally thousands of people may be watching the Twitter stream.

[Note: The Twitter exchange contains screen captures of actual tweets. Because the issues are systemic and not individual, I have blurred personal names and didn't include links to identifying information.]


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