3.2 Criteria for judging success
To some extent, failure is a mirror image of success. A simple definition of failure is ‘something that has gone wrong, or not lived up to expectations’. Moving a little way beyond this simple statement, various types or categories of failure can be identified such as:
- objectives not met
- undesirable side effects
- inappropriate objectives set for the system.
The first type includes systems where objectives are never met and those that work some, or even most, of the time, but are not as reliable as they should be. An example of the former is the BBC’s Digital Media Initiative mentioned earlier where the aim had been ‘to create a fully integrated digital production and archiving system to help staff to develop, create, share and manage video and audio content and programming on their desktops’ (BBC Trust, 2014). An example of the latter is the temporary collapse of NatWest’s online banking and other services including cash withdrawals from ATMs and debit card payments:
Millions of Natwest customers were left unable to withdraw cash or make transactions on Wednesday [6 March 2013], less than a year after IT problems left many unable to move money or pay bills for days. The bank said that online and telephone banking, cash withdrawals and payments had been affected.
In the second type of failures the original objectives are met but there are also consequences or side effects which are judged to be inappropriate or undesirable. For example, a suite of programmes might work well but leave the company that has installed them vulnerable because they create a security loophole or an unwise dependency on a third party. Even worse, these first two categories of failure are not mutually exclusive; a system may fail to live up to expectations and have undesirable consequences!
It can be argued that the distinction between the first and third categories of failure hinges on whether the objective setting was carried out correctly in the first place. In the first type the objectives are clearly taken as given and a judgement made solely about the extent to which they are met. ‘Inappropriate objectives’ leaves open the question of whether the original objectives were flawed. Once again, what at first appears to be a straightforward categorisation rapidly becomes more complicated because it relies heavily on the view taken of the original objectives which is in turn dependent on the standpoint of the observer.