Leaders call for radical shake up to improve IT project success rate

A call for radical change to improve the poor success rate of IT projects and gain more respect for IT people has come from the...

A call for radical change to improve the poor success rate of IT projects and gain more respect for IT people has come from the leaders of three bodies for specialists in this field, writes John Kavanagh.

BCS chief executive David Clarke, David Taylor, president of the Certus IT directors association, and David Rippon, chairman of the BCS Effective Leadership in IT Group, told a packed BCS seminar that the failure rate would not be tolerated in other professional fields, such as health, air travel and civil engineering. They also warned that companies are looking harder than ever at their IT spending.

Clarke said the major BCS drive in the next five years will be in promoting information systems as a profession.

"There is no reason why IS should not be seen in the same light as health and law," he said. "We have not tried to become that profession in the past, we have not set the standards and ethics that other professions have.

"Professionalism means delivering what we said we would, on time and to budget. It means having the right skills available, commitment to continuing professional development, following a code of practice, and recognised qualifications."

IT bodies have stood back on this, Clarke added, and it is time for bodies such as the BCS to take a lead. "We are no longer prepared to sit back and wait," he said. "We need to start making a noise on this, then other bodies will take up the cause with us."

Taylor applauded Clarke's determination and said, "We have spent billions globally on IT, consultancy and change initiatives, yet most organisations have stood pretty still. If we carry on doing the same old things, expecting different outcomes, we will get what we have always got.

"If we really want different results, we have to do something different."

Taylor said the hype must end. "We have got away with it because we have had something up our sleeve: the promise of the paperless office, the year 2000, the Internet. But what is up our sleeve now?" he said.

"We invent our own language, we hype up the technology. With the hype comes mystery, and we like that: it makes us feel special. We run what we call IT projects, but there is no such thing: they are business projects."

Taylor suggested a range of ways to improve things. For example, project manager job adverts emphasise things such as knowledge of particular project management software, when the emphasis should be on skills such as communication, leadership and business understanding.

User perception of IT is critical, said Taylor - people always remember what went wrong, so IT needs to stress the successes.

He suggested that "skill teams" should replace project teams. "Here you put together a project team knowing what each individual's strengths are and telling them they are in the team because of that strength, and that they should use it," he said.

"One reason projects fail is that they have been over project managed. Just get a team of committed people together, with a very clear vision of what they are going to achieve and what the boundaries are, and leave them alone."

Taylor pointed also to a new form of job contract, aimed at getting people's loyalty to the organisation rather than to IT. Employers promise skill development, involvement in decision making and career opportunities; and employees promise to develop and apply skills, take responsibility, behave in line with the organisation's values and be committed team workers.

Rippon, like Taylor a former IT director, said failure to invest adequately in staff development is an overriding issue in IT's poor success rate. He said it led to failure to integrate IT and the business, failure in project management, and failure to manage suppliers properly, as partners rather than enemies.

Rippon added that staff motivation depends on people being given responsibility - but they must be developed properly to take on that responsibility. "Investment in people will be repaid many times," he said.

Rippon emphasised that users need to be given "a pivotal role" in IT projects. "IT can propose and facilitate change but only users can achieve that change," he said. "The success or failure of an IT project depends on the user owning that project."

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