There are probably more Computer Weekly column inches dedicated to project management than to any other subject. Is this because it is a vital area of discourse or simply that IT managers are making things too complicated for themselves? writes Ross Bentley.
"Don't do anything that lasts more than six weeks," says Martin Richmond-Coggan, managing director of customer relationship management (CRM) at business intelligence supplier Applix. "This is where things go wrong, where the task becomes
so big it becomes unmanageable. But despite this and the fact that times are pretty tough we are still seeing companies investing in the big IT projects."
Richmond-Coggan's philosophy is to break down large projects into small manageable blocks, starting with the applications that will do most to ease the greatest pain in the organisation and show the board easy wins.
"You may be looking to improve customer service, implement sales automation and bring greater efficiency to the help desk, but you do not need to do it all at the same time," he says. "You need to take a flexible approach, one that gives you the ability to add new applications as you go along."
He believes it is the big bang approach to CRM implementations that has given these projects a bad name. People have found them too big and too all-encompassing.
"There was a belief that a company had to re-examine all its business processes in order to become truly customer-focused," he says. "Of course it is important but that does not necessarily mean a total overhaul of the business - you can join up your CRM applications with the rest of the business, but why change business processes that are mature and already competitive?
"Not too long ago it was thought that start-ups had an advantage over traditional companies in that they could start building their IT systems from scratch and were not hindered by legacy systems unable to deliver what the market demanded. In fact, being a traditional, established company has advantages."
Richmond-Coggan cites the example of home shopping company Littlewoods. "Two years ago it added an Internet business to its portfolio, since then it has gone from a standing start to a turnover of £80m.
Littlewoods' advantage is that it already had an infrastructure in place as well as the disciplines required to run a successful business, he says.
Richmond-Coggan also believes the way firms approach the tendering process when looking for a new system causes a lot of complexity that can affect the success of a project.
"Typically, IT managers will put together a complicated 30-page invitation to tender and will ask anywhere between five and 20 companies to apply," he says. "Prior to tender they will go around to all the different types of users who will use the system and ask them what they want. All these requirements go into the specification for the new system. But you can't do everything - IT projects are not about adding lots of bits of functionality. They are about alleviating the biggest pain.
"Companies should be looking at rectifying the important 80% - don't worry about the other 20% in the first instance, you can add that later as you evolve the system.
"If you make the specifications too complicated it all goes into a black hole and perpetuates the idea that IT projects are never successful. You cannot eat the whole elephant in one sitting."