Lessons Learned – DAC Beachcroft’s £4.39m failed IT project

On 28 January 2016, DAC Beachcroft filed its annual report and financial statements for the year ended 30 April 2015, which showed that over 2014 and 2015 it had written off a total of £4.39m as a result of an “internally developed IT project” that the board decided was no longer viable.
DAC Beachcroft’s IT director David Aird, who joined the top 25 UK law in October 2013 from Mitie Group, talks candidly to Legal IT Insider about the failed project – an attempt to write a case management system in SharePoint – and the lessons the learned from the experience.
“This project started long before I arrived but it was something mentioned in my interview. I thought it was quite a small project and I didn’t realise the firm was looking to build a new CMS on top of Microsoft Sharepoint using .NET components and custom code. We have 4 CMS – Proclaim, Solcase, Visualfiles and P4W – as a result of previous mergers. The firm looked to market and decided that nothing fitted so, in good faith, it looked to create its own. What’s really important to note is that this was a project driven by design, not necessity. 
The decision was ours and not one we felt we were forced into.  The reality is we already have in place robust systems that are superior to many of our competitors and this was a project intended to optimise that existing performance. 
At the time, the widely felt sentiment was that you could build anything on SharePoint. Every conference I went to there were at least 50 SharePoint vendors and SharePoint was the future of everything. People later came to realise that SharePoint was a platform you built other things on.
DAC Beachcroft came up with the concept in 2010 and brought in an external partner to help us deliver the project. But we weren’t entirely happy with how it was progressing and brought the project back in-house. We continued to use that partner in a limited way before, one year later, there was a pause.
As I came on board I was asked to reignite the project. I found a business sponsor from within DACB. IT projects are fine but you should never have an IT project unless there is a business person on the board asking for the project. Almost every IT project goes wrong because there is no business sponsor. So we had a key person on the board to be responsible. It was a challenging project and took up an awful lot of my time.
By then it was pretty clear that SharePoint was not going to work out of the box, we were going to have to build around it and I brought a new external partner on board. By then we had also just about become a development house. Our strategy was ‘why buy it when we can build it.’ The IT team had become very developer-heavy.
I get the idea behind the project and the refined version of SlicedBread is now very similar to what we were building. The CMS being built was for the whole business, to replace all the other CMS. As a business we have volume work with lots of process involved and we have high value work where clients want the high value touch. It’s interesting that this is a feature SlicedBread now have – you can be as process driven or as light touch as you like.
We spoke to K2 in July 2014 about implementing an external CMS and had we gone ahead we would have gone with K2. But shortly after speaking with K2, in around December 2014, we took the decision that a substantial amount of money had already been spent and that the project should be discontinued.
We were quite brave because often the most difficult thing is to stop an IT project. Would pursuing it be the best use of our members’ cash? We decided not. Other projects were more viable and the world quickly moved on.
I come from a business where you get rid of multiple systems and duplication and I will do over time but these things are quite costly and it can be quite difficult to build a business case.
Was it a crazy idea? I understand the history. The legal sector is very different. Speaking to other law firms, at the time they were doing similar things. Having said that, it is a large project for a firm of this size to undertake on its own with no track record. But people always scoff at innovation and the fact that SlicedBread have something very similar to how we ended up shows that we possibly were right to do it. The problem was that everyone thought that SharePoint could do more than it could. We thought it could make cups of tea.
There are some significant positives to have come out of it. The IT department now has far stronger project management and better governance. We have made sure that people are accountable and for any IT project we require major input from the business at sponsor level, including more board input. There is a project initiation document for any IT project that sets out what we will deliver and it needs to be signed off by the managing partner and have a sponsor from the business.
People across the business now realise the cost of things. Before, if you wanted something from IT is was seen as ‘free’. Now you can have whatever you like but you’ll receive an invoice. It gives partners the ability to be more commercial and gives them ownership of their P&L – if you want to spend more on IT or save a bit that’s ok but it shows people the cost of IT.”
This article first appeared in the latest Legal IT Insider