UK wasting billions on IT projects

22 April 2004

Billions of pounds are wasted every year on new IT systems, according to a report published by the Royal Academy of Engineering and BCS.

Despite many examples of good practice, there is still a lack of professionalism in software engineering that could even be dangerous in safety-critical systems. Britain is failing to produce software engineers and managers with the IT and project management skills to commission and execute complex IT projects.

"The UK public sector alone has spent an estimated £12.4 billion on software in the last year and the overall UK spend on IT is projected to be a monumental £22.6 billion," says Basil Butler, Chairman of the working group that produced the report. "We looked at a range of studies showing that only around 16 per cent of IT projects can be considered truly successful." Even conservative estimates put the cost of such failures into tens of billions of pounds across the EU. "I wonder if the Government has assessed the risks of its latest proposal to merge the IT systems of the Inland Revenue and Customs & Excise?" asks Professor John McDermid, Professor of Software Engineering at the University of York and a member of the working group.

There is a major software engineering challenge to deal with the inexorable rise in capability of computing and communications technologies but the Academy and BCS are concerned that our Universities are not producing people with adequate skills.

The report recommends that all senior IT practitioners designing and delivering high-consequence systems should be either Chartered IT Professionals - a new qualification being launched by BCS - or Chartered Engineers. "It is time for the IT industry to recognise the engineering content of their work and to embrace the discipline and professionalism associated with traditional branches of engineering," says Professor McDermid. "In fact, there is a powerful argument that registration should be mandatory for people working on high-consequence systems like safety-critical or banking software. We think the Office of Government Commerce should consider this."

One of the problems with cutting-edge software is that it is often hard to visualise what the system will do. "I wouldn't ask an engineer to build a 1,000 metre long concrete beam suspended at one end because I know it can't be done - I have a physical perspective on it," one respondent told the working group. "With software it's never like that. We don't have any underlying feel for whether something is even feasible." It is a cardinal mistake to select suppliers for a complex IT project on the basis of price alone, since it is very difficult for suppliers to accurately predict costs at the outset. If a customer is asking for something unrealistic or ultra-high risk, the supplier should tell the customer

"Projects are often poorly defined, codes of practice are frequently ignored and there is a woeful inability to learn from past experience," says Professor McDermid. "The role of systems architects is critical - their job is to translate a business vision into a technical blueprint. They often hold the keys to success in complex IT projects but they are in very short supply. The UK could benefit enormously from exploring ways to identify and support people with these unique skills."

"It needs to recognised that IT and software projects have many of the characteristics of traditional engineering programmes," says Mr Butler. "Many software and IT projects could benefit from employing the disciplines applied on other major projects."

Professor Wendy Hall, President of BCS says "BCS firmly believes that increasing professionalism is key to improving success rates on projects - it is fitting that this report should be issued at the same time as BCS is launching its Chartered IT Practitioner scheme."

View the 'Challenges of Complex IT Projects' report

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