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23 August 2011

Projects are immature

By Andrew Clifford

IT's project culture is a major barrier to reliable and long-lived IT.

Although it is technologically sophisticated, corporate IT is immature in a number of ways.

  • Reliability. IT system often break down, and need to be constantly patched and fixed.
  • Ownership and governance. It is hard to get business managers to provide the guidance necessary for IT systems. The IT department is often left looking after unowned systems.
  • Value. It is hard to value IT. Many IT systems run because we are scared to turn them off, rather than because we know how they deliver a return for the organisation. It is hard to justify work to maintain IT.
  • Longevity. IT systems require replacement after a few years, largely because they have become unsupportable rather than because the business has changed.

We know how to improve IT maturity, for example:

  • To improve reliability, we need good standards and operational procedures. We need to have a standard way of building, operating and supporting IT so that common problems are avoided, and when a problem does arise we get to the root cause and fix it quickly.
  • To improve ownership and governance, we need to improve the alignment between IT and business. IT systems have to align to organisational responsibilities, so that they can be clearly owned, rather than unownable cross-functional systems that do not reflect anyone's responsibility.
  • To improve value, we have to peel away the layers of confusion about the role of IT. Seeing IT as a vague corporate enabler does not help us understand IT's specific value. Seeing IT as the automation of the storage, processing and movement of information removes woolly thinking and pinpoints exactly what value is delivered from which IT systems.
  • To improve longevity we need to design, select and build systems and components that are capable of lasting a long time. More importantly, we need to manage systems so that they do last, ensuring that every modification improves the manageability of the system, and proactively assessing and replacing components that become outdated.

There are many reasons why we do not do the things we could to improve maturity. How many of them are related to the strong project management culture in IT?

  • Every project is a special one-off, and needs to break away from the approach and constraints of earlier solutions.
  • Projects deliver value because they bring together cross-functional solutions.
  • It is important to get buy-in to projects. Often it is hard to pinpoint the value of the project (or dangerous, if it involves staff reduction), and we have to use broad arguments about how the organisation in general will benefit from the project.
  • Timeliness is everything in projects. To retain business support and budget for the project, we have to cut corners to meet deadlines, and carry out quick and dirty fixes to integrate the project with existing systems.

In many respects, the way we approach projects is the exact opposite of what we need to do to improve IT's maturity, and to tackle the persistent problems of reliability, governance, value and longevity.

Next: Combining projects and good management

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