Back January 11, 2016

Learning from breakdown in communication

In November 2012, all German utilities announced increases in electricity prices. Our company decided to take advantage of this situation and launched a massive marketing campaign, which made it clear that we were offering prices below the market average. We also heavily promoted new contracts through a new function on the company website. Nobody had made guesses as to the number of expected users who would be drawn to this service due to our competitive prices. Nor did anyone consider the type of web traffic the site had been designed for.

The media campaign needed to happen that weekend due to legal obligations for communicating the price adjustment on the consumer market. Also happening that same weekend was a major IT infrastructure change that affected every IT service being hosted by the company all across Germany. Both initiatives had been planned independently for months without any knowledge-sharing.

Right after the IT change, the traffic on the website increased dramatically, which drove the system to the edge, creating the first outage. After a restart, the system remained stable until Monday morning which is when the typical office worker utilizes early office hours to conduct private business, such as creating power or gas contracts. This dramatically increased the web traffic and created an immediate outage.

The outage of the website lasted until Friday morning, when IT finally came up with a “plan B,” which consisted of a simplified website with a core function dedicated to “Online Contracts.” This led to a satisfying number of new contracts and new customers. Plan B was kept alive until the middle of March, at which time the stabilized and enlarged website went live again with full functionality.

After that, a complete redesign – with multiple technical, process-related, and design-enrichment elements – was initiated and went live before the fall marketing season. In parallel to the technical investigations and improvement measures, an independent external consulting company was hired to perform a full review throughout the organization. The final report was more than 100 pages. It offered a transparent view into multiple areas regarding organizational gaps, miscommunications, lack of processes, technical issues, and personal failures.

The report was sent throughout the organization and resulted in massive organizational changes in the IT division to ensure that these problems would be avoided in the future and –even more important – to lay a foundation for the digitalization of core businesses. Business and IT divisions jointly improved their handling of event and change scheduling. Furthermore common communication channels and escalation procedures had been adapted for the increased speed of change processes. Yet the technical root of the problem was never found with 100 percent certainty.