When Will We Learn?

Yet again there has been signficant controversy around a government IT project, and the fall-out suggests that we are still repeating the same mistakes now as we did 25 years ago.


Those of us with IT management degrees will perhaps have been taught about the London Ambulance Service, the Taurus system, the Inland Revenue systems, the Libra system, the NATS system - all classics in their own way, and no doubt grist for the academic mills. The C-Nomis project is yet another one that will grace the text books and classrooms all around the country, and effectively highlights that 'lessons learned' are probably no more than 'lessons noted', and the real change that is needed will only come when there is significant structural change in government and radical change in how we do things in the IT industry. The saddest part is the waste of taxpayers money that seems to be part of this whole endeavour, and the inability of some in influential positions to take ownership and responsibility for their actions (or inactions). These projects seem to get so embedded in the strategic directions of the various ministries and public sector bodies that there is no way back. The gateways are meaningless, and the project owners act in the way that the young Oliver Twist did when he approached his master with the words: "Please Sir, can I have some more?". Government and the budget holders seem to have no control over this, and rather than financial penalties and performance management incentives, we end up where we are now.

So what's the solution? Does anybody do it better? When will we learn? Or do we have to be held to the whims of these publicly sanctioned pick-pockets, to the detriment of real progress?>

Comments (15)

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  • 1
    Joe Berry wrote on 12th Nov 2009

    Interesting to note that successful projects tended to be small or medium-sized. The lesson has to be that large programmes over many years don't work unless they are broken down into small projects of 6 to 12 months maximum. Project managers often seem to be unable to tell the difference between planning and monitoring and cite planning tools as their way of 'managing' projects. What they mean is they keep updating the plan as it goes wrong. If activities are broken down to the smallest unit and estimated at that level then the plans and estimates will be as accurate as possible and the activity monitoring will show each week if and where you're deviating from the plan. (Yes I know it's hard work but it's what we get paid for). If the trend is continually upward then you have serious problems which can be addressed before more public money is poured down the drain.
    Everyone seems reluctant to admit that bad project management is the fault of bad project managers but we know that in many cases that's the truth.
    And in case anyone thinks I'm being naive, I am a PM working on a large national project in the public sector and have done so for many years.
    Let's get all PMs professionally qualified through the Institute (BCS) and drive up the standard.

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  • 2
    Matt wrote on 12th Nov 2009

    Good post and comment. I wonder how many more public sector projects are equally unsuccessful but fail to make the news simply because they are relatively small scale? I know I've worked on several.

    My own experience is that a major part of the problem - on the projects I've seen - is with the public/private sector interface. The combination of inadequate requirements and poor understanding of the business even by the people in charge of that business, inadequate/incompetent project management, lack of financial accountability, lack of clear ownership/responsibility for delivery at all stages in the process, arbitrary political pressures, gross profiteering by private sector consultancies who sell their one-size-fits-all snake-oil solutions regardless of the real requirements, unwillingness to face up to and resolve hard questions on both sides, loss of technical and project management skills in the public sector over the last 20 years, foolish "Big Bang" developments instead of incremental and manageable smaller projects, and over-reliance on cheap, inexperienced onshored programming staff instead of experienced specialists and all-rounders, all lead to what seems like an endless series of "Death March Projects", doomed to failure almost as soon as they're conceived.

    And after every failure, the same handful of grotesquely overpaid consultancies get offered the next government IT project, which they and their public sector partners then proceed to screw up in exactly the same way, over and over again. The only solution must be to insist on ruthless accountability throughout the process.

    As a freelance IT consultant, if I screw up badly, I can expect to lose my job and possibly get sued. I see no reason why the same discipline should not apply right across the board, from junior developer to CTO in both public and private sectors. Until the people who fail pay the price for their failures, there can be no hope of improving things.

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  • 3
    Geoff Codd wrote on 13th Nov 2009

    Everything that has been said above is so very true, and I could go on at length with much more. Suffice it to say that only two facts lie at the root of this most damaging problem. The 'lessons learned' are never learned by the right people (the CEOs et al), and those in 'influential positions' (ie CEOs et al) do not actually take real ownership in all its senses. My recent book deals with all this at length.

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  • 4
    Martin Newton Hughes wrote on 13th Nov 2009

    I'm really disheartened with the current government all advice given to them from experts in their field seems to be ignored these days.

    It's a terrible shame.

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  • 5
    Thomas Docker wrote on 13th Nov 2009

    There are ways of being more successful, but they don't rest with the government departments or the big consultancies that they shuffle round from department to department. Getting inside the OGC Buying Solutions 'club' is the challenge for most SMEs that really can make a difference.

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  • 6
    Paul Crooks wrote on 13th Nov 2009

    The Open University does a good post-graduate course in this area: T852 Learning from IS Failures. The solution is not necessarily better Project Management as the causes of failure often lie outside the control of the project. Many of these projects are destined to fail even before they start because of the environment in which they were conceived.
    Large scale projects are very complex: I would recommend the joint BCS/RAE report "The Challenges of Complex IT Projects" (2004) as a starting point. Actually, there are many good books, reports, and research papers addressing this area. There is no shortage of advice on how these large-scale projects should be run, the problem seems to be that there are too few decision makers who are willing to listen.

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  • 7
    Allen Colledge wrote on 13th Nov 2009

    I agree with all the above; we never learn. My view is that if NEGATIVE lessons learned do not result in changing something NOW then they are indeed lessons noted. The "something" I refer to may be a template, process, checklist, training course, standard risk log, supplier selection criteria or any of the tools used for the next project but unless action is immediate then the exercise is a futile waste of time (except of course the pat on the back for a perfect project if there is such a thing).

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  • 8
    Chris wrote on 13th Nov 2009

    A sideways thought -

    The government will listen to successful practitioners, and will take advice from them. These practitioners are successful because they are good at making money. Is it surprising that by taking their advice, the government gets taken to the cleaners?

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  • 9
    Steve Farthing wrote on 18th Nov 2009

    Until I retired 2 years ago I worked for the MOD managing IT Projects and Programs and latterly an IS Department for a large business unit. I am also a trained and experienced OGC gateway reviewer, with qualifications in Project, Programme and Risk management and a Chartered BCS member. Given that background I have a couple of comments. Firstly the role of the Senior Responsible officer is critical. Yet i have often seen untrained and inexperienced senior civil servants, military officers and particularly police officers appointed to the SRO merely on the basis of rank and/or because it is on the career path for their next promotion. The result is always poor programme/project leadership and failure. Yet the practice continues.

    Secondly I have some major concerns about the roles that the major IT and management consultancies play in major projects. For example some years ago I worked on a huge and ultimately successful programme. The prime contractor was a very large management/IT consultancy. Once the contract was signed they appointed a project manager who then brought in a huge number of bright eyed and bushy tailed and hugely inexperienced graduates straight from university. To my horror they had little knowledge of the software and no knowledge of our business. The daily rate for each of these guys was eyewatering. They eventually delivered a system. However they held back on the skills transfer process to the Civil Servants so that they could bid for and win the subsequent maintenance contract. The net result was a huge increase in running costs. (at the time the consultants were anywhere between £200 and £2000 a day, an experienced Civil Servant between 20-30k pa). The SROs still fail to understand that these management consultancies are out to make money, have their own agenda which often is not to deliver what the customers want but to generate as much income from the customer as they can.

    Lastly I would agree with Thomas about the OGC "buyers club". Having left the MOD on an early retirement deal I thought I might make my way as an independent consultant. I have the experience and qualifications. However unless I sign up with one of the "buyers club" members my prospect of getting any work in the public sector are non-existent. But I honestly do not see why the tax payer should fund the 20-30% markup that a consultancy will put on my fees.

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  • 10
    Geoff Codd wrote on 18th Nov 2009

    I read so many almost identical views of where the problem lies, ranging from inexperienced business leadership, self interested consultancies, huge projects not broken down, changing requirements after contract, lack of adequate relationship management etc. etc. - where do I stop? Those problems and many many more are clearly recognised by all those professionals who have many years of varied front line experience to draw on - my own goes back many decades.

    Why then, after decades of constant frustration and repeated failure, do we not see a marked change for the better? I put it to you that the business exploitation model of the last century is innappropriate for today's e-business world, and unless we address that fundamental we will not resolve the problem.

    A more appropriate model must simply reflect the compendium of all those important lessons that we have learned, but with one radical difference from the present situation. That difference is a small but important movement in the division of accountability between the IT professionals and the business leadership, such that better informed business (from the CEO down) is expected to be more directly accountable for their IT exploitation.

    Such change provides huge challenges to the status quo, which are often not welcomed by many. However, until we grasp the nettle and incorporate our very best practices into a new organisational model that gives them a chance to be effective, we will not see the improvements in performance that all of us seek so ardently.

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  • 11
    Bruce Levitan wrote on 24th Nov 2009

    I agree with almost all of the above, with the emphasis - for me - being on project governance (role of SRO and project board). However I also wonder if this is a uniquely public sector thing. I suspect the issues aired here are just as relevant in the private and voluntary sectors; if not so frequently reported!

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  • 12
    AndyJ wrote on 18th Dec 2009

    @Steve - with regards to the Consultancy's own agenda two points come out of this - firstly, there is always someone, somewhere who has an alternative agenda which could affect the direction of the programme/project.

    My second point should address your critism made above and the first point, create a contract/SLA/requirement to provide the appropriate products to impart the consultants knowledge upfront.

    This is usually something that is not thought of during initial requirements because it's not the key critical part of the original product to ensure the business changes direction.

    Once the direction is changed then thought goes into the next stage/step by which time the consultants are looking to guide you to the next step for a fee rather than you asking for the complete map at the beginning.You could then assess whether it's better to leave the rest of the journey to a 3rd party or take control yourself.

    As Paul said above - The lessons are out there, most of us know them but it's the putting into practise that is the key. Why don't I take that Six Sigma approach to a question and drill down to the nth degree, why don't I discuss each requirement face-to-face and obtain a better picture, why did I not think of asking the consultants for a hand-over as part of the requirements? etc etc

    @Joe - I'd like organisation to be required to take on 'licensed' PMs from the BCS and APM - the only way that might happen is if Insurance Companies will Insure/Underwrite a Programme only if it's lead/headed/comprises of Licenced/Certified/Chartered PMs. or maybe if Financial Institutions allow more capital loan to a firm if seeded with L/C/C PMs !! If licenced RIBA Architects could be faced with legal preceedings if something was neglected then why not PMs?..is it because Life is not directly involved?

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  • 13
    Geoff Codd wrote on 26th Jan 2010

    Having revisited and read all of the above, there is so much good sound sense out there. Yet the fundamental changes that are needed to address this performance problem (which is actually commonplace across business as well as in Government) are still little in evidence.

    Through the ages there has been a total preoccupation with the issues surrounding the management of technology, rather than addressing the softer cultural issues.

    The latter often lie at the heart of many very dramatic IT exploitation failures, and those lessons often emerge in the inevitable post mortem; and yet the lessons are not learned by those who are the only ones in a position to really address those issues - namely top business management.

    All that we hear about today is how the 'Cloud' is the answer to everything. With the advent of the 'Cloud', we see history repeating itself once again, with many failing to realise that the whole 'Cloud' concept has three parts; the technology issues (which are at least partly understood), the process issues (which are little understood), and the cultural issues which are not properly understood at all.

    The key is an IT exploitation structure and driving ethos that creates and cements a combined IT/Business driving force that then cuts through existing silo power structures and creates an unstoppable force for beneficial change throughout the business.

    This demands a slight but fundamental change in business attitude and participation in the change management process, from the board level downwards. Perhaps the really surprising thing is that the resultant closing of the business/IT culture gap is not necessarily welcome by either side for their own parochial reasons. However, that is another story.

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  • 14
    Project Eye wrote on 27th Jan 2010

    About to post some new material, bit of a hiatus on that, but this is an election year and we are all looking at "what they might they do next?" ... assuming we do indeed have a change of government. This resonates well with Geoff's comments, but at a public sector IT project level:


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  • 15
    L M Sutton wrote on 27th Jan 2010

    All of the above help with projects but projects need visionarys who are expert in IT and business. Visionarys must play the game of the business and take over the project. Playing the game of the top managers but delivering what the business needs in a way the business can absorb the change. Too much information will attract too many non contributers who wish to build their careers on your project.

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