Tips for IT project success: beware technology obsession

As systems professionals, we are often greatly enthused by new or emergent technologies, tools or techniques. We also have a natural inclination to reach for the technology button when confronted with a major process challenge. Understandably so, as part of our expertise lies in mastering technologies that can be put to productive use.

As systems professionals, we are often greatly enthused by new or emergent technologies, tools or techniques. We also have a natural inclination to reach for the technology button when confronted with a major process challenge. Understandably so, as part of our expertise lies in mastering technologies that can be put to productive use.

However, from time to time the technology can take us over. With scant regard for the fundamental challenge in hand and a shallow perception of the underlying issues, we run the risk of folding the information and processes into our technology paradigm.

At worst, we discover a well-designed, ingenious product, which quickly establishes a disproportionate hold. The technology becomes the proverbial hammer looking for an appropriate nail to slam. In reality we know from hard experience that many of the "next best thing" technologies flatter to deceive, not truly delivering on an over-hyped expectation.

So why are we surprised when IT projects sometimes fail?

Amid our industry hype, we must beware the perils of technology obsession and be prepared to offer pragmatic, proven and cost-efficient solutions to even some of the most complex of challenges. Elegant design, slick development tools, breakthrough technologies and colorful graphics do not always add up to an effective solution.

Our obligation is to make rational, objective evaluations of existing and emergent technologies, whilst not forgetting the environmental, commercial and, most importantly, people and organisational forces that are in play.

Here are a few lessons that can help keep us focused on "fit for purpose", "managed-risk" and "business value" rather than simply great technology, and which may help avoid costly mistakes:

Key points

Bet on people, not technology alone - who is going to use it, deploy it and support it? Are the skills primed, positioned and ready to go? What are the overarching political considerations and are they being addressed? Are key stakeholders and sponsors fully aligned?

Carefully question project objectives - for example, are we trying to achieve sustainable and strategic market advantage or is a quick fix to a local problem really required? Is a temporary, non-strategic solution available to tide us over?

Plan to over-train - often under estimated and critical to success. Technologists absorbed in the design detail will easily underestimate training effort, particularly when automating previously manual tasks.

Challenge the demand - what may appear to be a comprehensive set of needs may in reality be a wish-list that's far from necessary - or affordable.

Focus more on process than technology - the technology is of course only part of the solution. An integrated and cohesive approach to process design and reengineering is essential, with as much senior user buy-in as possible.

Evaluate alternative technologies that may be more or less mature but possess greater present or future potential.

We are not all R&D experts, so when looking to utilise something new, pick the right partners who are committed to your project and share your balance of risks and rewards.

Are individual and collective expectations realistic? If unsure, and to avoid frustration and future disappointment, undersell the benefits and go flat-out to over-deliver.

Limit exposure by carefully piloting new technologies in a low visibility area of the organization, critically evaluate the results and be brave enough to bail-out if necessary.

Time investments with care - evaluate where the new technology lies on the maturity curve (and its future shape) and plan accordingly. Be prepared to resist business pressure - "wait and see" if unsure.

Always overestimate time and funding when deploying immature technology, as Murphy's Law will often prevail.

Finally, be honest at all stages - with yourself and the team. If the business case becomes tenuous, remember that it's rare for projects requiring several rounds of re-funding to ultimately be considered successful. And if all else fails, be prepared to stop flogging if the horse has long since expired.

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