Clinical Informatics

Information System Failures and the NHS


  1. Introduction and Context of Information Systems Failure at large and in the NHS

  2. The Definition of Information System Failure

  3. The causes of Information System Failure

    1. Pre-implementation
    2. During Implementation
    3. Post-implementation

  4. Managing Individual and Organisational Change

  5. Conclusions

  6. References

The definition of Information System Failure

Using the British Computer Society definition, Information Systems are defined as:

"software that has been written to support human activity within an organisation".

The definition of Information System failure is also important in order to direct research and facilitate data collection for more study. Unfortunately, this is not clear and there does not appear to be any consensus on this topic. Without this consensus, it will be very difficult for policy makers and professional regulating bodies to set legislation or issue meaningful guidelines.

Although some have suggested that the definition of "Information Systems failure" is a relative and variable concept, or can be subdivided into 4 groups of varying severity (6):

  1. total

  2. partial

  3. unsustainable

  4. un-replicable

It would seem that these "loose" and complex definitions are not helpful. They only serve to increase the confusion already present in the communications between the different professional groups involved and cloud the issues further.

The definition needs to be clear and understandable to all stakeholders, including the front-line foot soldiers and should be based on pragmatic values such as:

in order to be meaningful to all.

The definition of Information Systems failure should be one where the implementation of the system either:

  1. goes over budget

  2. has significant delay in terms of years

  3. does not do what it was meant to do from the contracted specifications

  4. does not fit in the organisational structure or work processes

This is because even if an Information System implementation does not fail completely, and only goes over budget by two to three times, or is delayed, the opportunity costs of the human and financial resources expended could have been allocated to other uses.

In terms of the National Health Service, this could have meant expanding some critical services and better serve the public at large.

Paradoxically, this would mean that the "partial failures" would have an even more detrimental effect on the organisation than the "complete failures" and should hence be treated as one and the same.

The use of the concepts of “expectation failures” (7) and “terminal failures” (8) may lead to the same adverse end results. The concept of “abandonment” does not appear to be helpful either, as the reasons that led to the abandonment would very likely to be the actual cause of the failure in the first instance.

It only adds to the confusion and seems to seek to avoid defining failures as failures by labeling them as Information System “abandonment” instead.


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Page Updated: 17 May, 2017

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