IT is hard – perhaps the most challenging thing an organization does. This is reflected in the various surveys that show how unsuccessful most businesses are at doing something meaningful with IT. Every year Standish Group performs a great service to the community of IT professionals by publishing its Chaos Report on the success or otherwise of IT projects. Around a third of projects never reach the finishing line – hundreds of billions of dollars flushed down the toilet. Another half of projects reach the finish line, but only due to extended timescales and massive over-expenditure – and even then they may be dysfunctional. Only a fifth of projects deliver more or less what was expected of them. Most of this is unreported, simply because businesses really do not want to hang their dirty washing on the line – understandably. However this lack of transparency means the hype merchants get it all their own way. Endless promises of business transformation that rarely materialize. Most IT professionals understand this very well – but senior management tend not to. They haven’t done the job so how can they possibly know.
No other area of business endeavor delivers a 20% success rate. Imagine 80% of office buildings being dysfunctional or incomplete, or 80% of the airplanes falling out of the sky. The reason IT is so problematic relates hardly at all to the technology – which works in the main. It’s all about people, power, expectations, politics and skills. So let’s talk about some of the problems and their possible solutions:
- Skills. IT projects will not succeed unless people know what they are doing – and this applies across the entire spectrum of job functions. It is no use having project managers who don’t have a clue what the programmers, designers, database administrators and so on, actually do. These people will not respect a manager with no knowledge of the domain. I personally witnessed a team of designers and programmers who designed a very good horse racing betting system when they should have been working on a just-in-time production system for a car manufacturer. The two project managers were a recent history graduate and someone out of accounts. They knew what a Gantt Chart was, but not what a just-in-time system looked like. In no other profession would we deploy managers who had no understanding of the task at hand. IT is a technical endeavor and projects will only be successful if technical skills are of the highest possible quality.
- Politics. All business life is political, but it gets amplified when IT gets involved. Information is supposed to be power and business managers guard their data with gusto. One manager does not want another manager benefiting from their data, and so the political games begin. Who owns a system, who can use it, how they can use it, who can modify it and so on, need to be decided up front. Without this clarity many projects are effectively sabotaged. Projects also need sponsorship from the very top of the organization, so that squabbles can be resolved with some level of authority. Tom DeMarco estimated that a quarter of all projects died because of political squabbling. My first job was in aerospace – helping design the structure of aircraft wings. It would have been unthinkable that political infighting would result in unsafe wing structures – but then again wing design was left to people with the relevant skills, and we didn’t have history graduates or people from accounts managing the project.
- Suppliers. Because senior management in many large businesses do not trust their own IT management, they choose instead to trust suppliers – technology suppliers, outsourcing companies, large consulting firms. Yes – it’s hard to believe, but it is commonplace. That these senior managers do not anticipate that the suppliers will take them for everything they can, and come out with any old yarn to get a sale is beyond belief. However the situation is not quite as simple as this. Some of the very large suppliers effectively act as recruitment agencies for executives, and so there is considerable incentive to make a large investment with a supplier simply to realize some very attractive benefits. I was once privileged to do some work with an ex-CIO turned writer and researcher, publishing works showing how IT investment has no correlation with business success (which should come as no surprise by now). He also published a report showing how businesses which used a very popular ERP suite typically underperformed their competitors. This was not well received – and he withdrew it. Such are the pressures that suppliers can apply in this market – again quite unique to the IT industry.
- Hype. This is well described by Gartner’s Hype Cycle – although in my opinion Gartner is part of the problem. Suppliers, consultants, business managers, technicians, the press, blog writers etc, etc, all get whipped up into a frenzy when a new technology suddenly becomes flavor of the month. How this happens isn’t really clear, but the result is the same – everyone want to climb aboard the gravy train and get a piece of the action. Except this is exactly the wrong time to adopt a technology. Prices are high, experience non-existent, and expectations way too high. And so we get an eager band of guinea-pigs, happy to risk money and reputation on the latest and greatest technological whizz. Many of these projects are doomed to fail – no one has any experience after all. Ignoring hype and focusing on what the business really needs does require a level of superhuman focus. A good second option is to sit on one’s hands while everyone else screws up. In this way we can learn from the mistakes of others and dip into a more experienced skills pool when we do decide to do something.
I could go on, but this is already too long. Without doubt we will still be seeing 20% project success rates in a decade from now, apart from the rare cases where senior managers treat IT with the respect it deserves. To counter this essentially critical analysis of IT in business, I should add that I have seen truly astonishing business transformations come from successful IT projects. The ingredients are always the same – good skills, strong leadership, tight focus and mutual respect all round. If management in your business consider it a badge of honor to proclaim they are ‘not technical’, you might as well give up hope now. Soon large parts of your business will be run by algorithms – it doesn’t get any more technical than that.