IBM: IT failure and social media disaster

IBM: IT failure and social media disaster

Summary: 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.]

Topics: Social Enterprise, IBM

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  • Twitter persistence

    Good article Mike. We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that despite your efforts to create some anonymity for those you were tweeting with, twitter search reveals the tweets.

    One needs to remember to be as careful with twitter as one is with any public, persistent, searchable medium....
    • Persistence

      I'm aware there are ways to uncover the original tweets, and several ZDNet bloggers discussed this issue before I posted. Thanks for commenting.
  • does any serious person uses tweeter?

    I thought it was limited to narcisists and people who overestimate their abilities, but looking for some ignorant audience.
    Linux Geek
    • re: does any serious person uses tweeter?

      I thought that was what tech blog comments sections were for :P
      • It's a big market...

        ...plenty of room for ZDNet, Twitter, and a host of other players...
        Erik Engbrecht
  • RE: IBM: IT failure and social media disaster

    Great blog. IBM is never in the wrong for failed IT projects - Just ask them. However, that's not to say that the customer is *always* right either.

    As good as IBM is at manufacturing hardware, a more rigorous approach to ensuring that the customer has undertaken "due diligence" for identifying business and project requirements would prove beneficial (as is applicable to most IT Vendors). Maybe a revamp of their pre-implementation processes would prove beneficial to all parties in helping to avoid IT failures and scapegoating.

    As the Vendor, IBM should ensure that the customer has accurate and extensive requirements and that they comprehend exactly what they are asking the vendor to deliver (which more often than not isn't the case). Typically, the customer defers to the vendor since they are the "perceived" experts.
    But the vendor mistakenly believes that the customer has undertaken extensive and accurate due diligence for project and business requirements and that they know what they want the system to deliver. The point is that its highly unlikely that they do! This is often the starting point of the demise of an IT project.

    From my experience and feedback from other organizations having dealt with large vendors, they are inclined towards TVC (thinly veiled contempt) of their clients' staff, arrogance towards their customers and poor communications between the organization as well as other vendors.

    As for denial on behalf of this major vendor, using twitter - this doesn't really help your cause.

    Sarah Runge
    Corporate profiling
    • About IBM... and social media... not sure I'd deem this a "disaster"

      I can't speak at all on any of the details regarding the actual DB2-GSIS issue... but with regard to our (IBM's) guidelines and use of social media, I have a few thoughts in light of all of this.

      I'm glad you pointed out the Social Computing Guidelines. It is something we are proud of, and something that, for the most part, does a really good job of informing our use of social tools - as a company and as individual employees. And, as you point out, there is definitely guidance in there to refrain from talking about some of these related issues.

      As a company we've explicitly encouraged employees to engage and participate - wherever they choose and on whatever platforms they choose. And thousands on thousands do (on Twitter and elsewhere). For the most part, we do a really good job on all of this. But sometimes we don't.

      Now, in reading this post a few times to really understand the dynamics here, here's my interpretation (and take it just for that please). I don't know that I'd go so far as to characterize this as a "disaster." It definitely raises some interesting and important points around how we (employees and employers) should engage in these spaces, but "disaster" is a loaded term that implies something pretty massive.

      I haven't spoken with the IBMer yet, so I can't say for sure, but to me, I don't see his/her post as implying your intents were "somehow wrong, unethical, or not straightforward." I don't know... maybe it was... but to me while it comes across with a hint of sarcasm or tongue-in-cheek, I don't see it as being accusatory (that could be my bias coming through though... ).

      And that's the key - We don't know. That post is the only one from the IBMer so there was no attempt to clarify the statement, based on the conversation that ensued. That, to me, is the bigger problem - we didn't stick around to participate in the resulting conversation. Now, I'm glad we didn't dig deeper into a hole in which we shouldn't comment, but in general, I hope we - IBM - can be more deeply and authentically engaged in the conversations around us.

      This is a good reminder to everyone that what we say often has wider visibility than just the person to whom it was intended, and those things we say can be interpreted in ways we didn't intend. For those reasons, we ought to continue to be thoughtful as employees and employers as social media gets more and more prevalant...

      Apologize for the lack of brevity here!
      • There are two components

        Thanks for taking time to add your thoughtful comments.

        There are two issues here:
        1. The Philippines incident itself, which obviously you cannot comment on and which I primarily discussed in the previous post.

        2. The social media response to that incident.

        Regarding the term disaster, perhaps I should have called it an "embarrassment," as Shel Israel said here:

        More importantly, I was shocked by the general tone and attitude toward the customer, as expressed in those tweets. Granted, interpreting tweets is sometimes more art than science, and I wrote the post based on my own personal reaction. As you pointed out, others might interpret the words differently and therefore arrive at alternate conclusions.

        More broadly, the situation highlights a true difficulty with social media. Every employee now has the potential to interact directly, without intermediaries, with members of the traditional press, analysts, bloggers, and journalists of every description.

        This creates the opportunity for open communication while also opening everyone up to conflicting messages, lack of clarity, and half-formed ideas. As a blogger, I prefer hearing a straightforward position just as you want to communicate clearly.

        We're not going to solve this one today, but thanks again for your comments.

    • RE: IBM: IT failure and social media disaster

      Hey Sarah -

      How are you?

      You make a really important point here:

      <b>As good as IBM is at manufacturing hardware, a more rigorous approach to ensuring that the customer has undertaken "due diligence" for identifying business and project requirements would prove beneficial (as is applicable to most IT Vendors). Maybe a revamp of their pre-implementation processes would prove beneficial to all parties in helping to avoid IT failures and scapegoating.</b>

      Color me cynical, but many times the requisite due diligence might cause a vendor like IBM to walk away from a deal. Perhaps vendors should search for "bad business" and red flags more often and more extensively. While this would minimize project failures, it would probably also significantly reduce a vendor's sales.
      • RE: IBM: IT failure and social media disaster

        Hi Phil

        Due Diligence wouldn't reduce a Vendor's sales because they wouldn't walk away from the deal. Depending upon the vendors ability to underestimate project costs, it would however reduce their revenue from overrun costs. But on the upside it would ultimately save the customers pocket and vendor credibility.

        IT Project due diligence would greatly assist both parties in planning for IT project success and in attaining a win/win scenario.

        Sarah Runge
        Corporate profiling
    • Vendor responsibility

      From what I've read, IBM is the OEM vendor. There is another systems integrator involved. IBM does not have a direct relationship with the client except for software maintenance and support.
      The customer expected to store more than a Terabyte in a single table. In DB2 v8 for LUW where the problem arose, the maximum table size was 512GB in a non-database partitioning environment. It is the systems integrators responsiblity to ensure the client requirements are met by the proposed IT architecture.
      If this was the requirement, the SI could have chosen to run a more current version of DB2 for LUW (9.1, 9.5) where this limit is lifted or run on DB2 for z/OS.
      Emergency system upgrades on a database version level in production is the hight of poor planning.

      • No doubt you are right, but....

        There is also no doubt IBM knew something of the customer's plans before selling the system. As the post and commenters pointed out, at the very least there is a problem with IBM sales. Even aside from all that, this issue escalated into general newspapers. IBM made a mistake by stonewalling, in my opinion.
  • RE: IBM: IT failure and social media disaster

    Hi, just o give you overview on Philippines Gov.,

    1st Government offices/official in Phil uses IT project to get money from kickbacks, not understanding what they dealing.

    2nd Gov. agency here is not capable (incompetent) of handling such technology for they don't understand the value of such, unlike private company who knows who and what to hire for the job.

    3rd Gov. Exec/employees. are just incompetent specially when technology comes into mind however they are good in politics. Im sure they dont have Database/System administrator or IT manager capable of understanding the architecture of the system which is very normal to gov. agencies in Phils. Big example 1 billion worth of tabulating machine for Commission on Election that was even tested and now they are open for bidding another system for the coming election.

    Lastly they are just looking for someone to blame on their failure which is very typical to Phil. Gov official to hide their incompetency.

    Please refer to this discussion for filipino IT views.
  • RE: IBM: IT failure and social media disaster

    are you sure about that, is IBM the direct vendor or indirect?