NHS IT project is dead, but why do large IT projects fail? Part 5

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Following the  news that the NHS National Project for IT has been dropped I have been posting some of the views I have recently had provided to me for an unrelated feature I am working on. The feature, which will appear in two parts on Computerweekly.com soon, asks the question: Why do large IT projects fail?

I started with the comments made by Brian Randell. Randell is a professor of at the School of Computing Science at Newcastle University.

Then part two came from Anthony Finkelstein. He is professor of software systems engineering at University College London (UCL) and dean of UCL Engineering. Part three, was from Yann L'Huillier, group CIO at financial services giant Compagnie Financiere Tradition, who has also headed up IT at several of the world's t stock exchanges.

Part 4 was from James Martin, the former IT COO Europe at investment bank Lehman Brothers.

Today is part 5 from Philip Virgo is secretary general at the Information Society Alliance. He has nearly 40 years' experience of IT projects.

He says: "Large projects nearly always fail unless broken into components that can be delivered step by step by mixed teams of users and technicians who know what they have to achieve together, what their next job will be if they succeed - and that they cannot move onto it until they have delivered this one to the satisfaction of the business. That satisfaction may well be an evolving mix of specification, time and budget, because incremental implementation and market change leads to changing expectations and needs. My first major project was the merger and decimalisation of the sales ledgers for the companies that had come together to form ICL. My reward was two years at the London Business School, including a course on programme management led by one of the Polaris team. I have watched success and failures over nearly 40 years. The reasons have not changed. By far the IT biggest project in the UK was the transition of the payment clearing system, including the ATMs in every high street, to internet protocols and common card standards. It took nearly ten years to complete all the incremental changes. No one has ever heard of it because success is boring."

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This is the only viewpoint of the 9 (I'm writing this comment retrospectively) I've read so far that starts to identify the true cause of problems.

Certainly decomposition is a critical part of the approach - but in order to successfully decompose, one has to have a detailed description of the consitituent components, their interrelationships,(not purely process mapping or functional breakdowns ...), and showing many "views", all done in a technology / implementation agnostic manner whilst wrestling with the subjective niceties of unspoken assumptions and lack of common meanings.

This process 1) involves a lot of work with business stakeholders, who cannot necessarily commit time or are prepared / able to make operational and policy decisions before seeing a "system", 2) requires analytical skills not possessed by many, and 3) has to be done in a manner to explicitly build in flexibility and change resilience.

Is it a coincidence that the most successful parts of the NHS project can be viewed as pure technology implementations requiring little business input (e.g. the spine)?

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This page contains a single entry by Karl Flinders published on September 30, 2011 10:14 AM.

NHS IT project is dead, but why do large IT projects fail? Part 4 was the previous entry in this blog.

The IT industry resembles life at the top in football and banking? is the next entry in this blog.

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