Thought for the day:Why do we fail to learn from history?

IT governance expert Paul Williams looks at a hot issue of the day.When it comes to information technology-related business...

IT governance expert Paul Williams looks at a hot issue of the day.When it comes to information technology-related business projects, one thing that history tells us is that we do not learn from history.

When The Times editorial leads with the problems the public sector has in bringing in successful IT projects, you know that this has now become a serious mainstream issue.

The leader on Wednesday was prompted by the latest admission of problems with the CSA systems project now, allegedly, £50m over budget and at least a year late. The editorial also quoted claims that £1bn has been wasted on public sector IT projects in the past five years alone. This is a horrifying statistic.

The leader prompted me to dust down my copy of the 1993 report into the failure of the London Ambulance Service computer-aided despatch system.

I led the study into understanding what had gone wrong and, together with my team, put forward recommendations to minimise the chances of such failures in the future.

Rereading the report's conclusions confirmed to me that indeed we do not learn from history.

The problems that the LAS project encountered were remarkably similar to those seen in more recent projects. Issues such as going for a "big bang" solution rather than a phased incremental implementation, and looking for the lowest cost solution still seem present. Projects being seen as IT projects rather than business change projects also often contribute to the problems.

Other problems with the LAS project included lack of user "ownership" of the system, inadequate testing, lack of governance at the highest levels within the organisation, no adequate audit involvement, and inappropriate supporting infrastructure also seem to reoccur regularly with later public (and private) sector projects.

Since the LAS systems failure, technology has become far more complex and systems requirements more comprehensive. Political pressures and changing agendas, combined with this increasing complexity, means the risk of failure is now far higher.

Most significant projects, both within the public and private sectors, involve multiple parties. Rarely will all the expertise needed to develop and implement a system be present within the organisation concerned.

This need for different organisations to work in partnership also increases risk. At the time of the LAS Inquiry I asked: "Who is the project manager?" From the four parties I received three different answers. Such matters should never be subject to ambiguity.

Within the NHS, the proposed appointment of an "IT tsar" to provide experienced leadership over the next phase of NHS IT projects is a welcome sign. Elsewhere in the public sector such expertise may not exist.

Indeed, as The Times leader states: "Successful projects require trust and the sharing of risk. And this can exist only if there are enough skilled people in government to exercise expertise and take responsibility."

All those involved in a major project, from senior level directors with the all-important governance responsibilities, down to the individual end users who will have to make the solution work at the sharp end of the business, must be involved in the risk management processes.

This implies the need for upfront training as well as full involvement throughout the project. In my experience the training rarely happens - at any level.

There is no simple solution, but trying to learn the lessons of the past can only help.

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Paul Williams is an independent consultant specialising in IT governance, IT due diligence and project risk management. He can be contacted at .

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