Many long-term infrastructure projects frequently end up with those involved feeling as if they've been condemned to spending their time engaged in futile tasks, endlessly pushing digital balls up digital hills, much like Sisyphus.

To avoid this Sisyphus syndrome one has to develop a level playing field. Michael Pincher head of IT, CrossRail, spoke to the BCS Elite group recently about information management and what needs to be done in order to get on top of a growing project. Justin Richards reports.

CrossRail are embarking on a massive transport project to create a new rail link under London, which runs for 23km.

In order to do this the project will have to shift over 500 million cubic metres of earth, and construct the tunnels to more exacting standards than any dug previously. The tunnel will also have to be wider than the other underground lines, in some case over 2m wider.

The projects aims are:

  • To provide additional transport capacity;
  • Enhance international connections;
  • Provide extra capacity for population and job growth;
  • Enhance the regeneration of the Thames Gateway.

The information system's goals are to support business processes anywhere and anytime and to improve stakeholder relationships.

Headed by the Department of Transport, and supported by Cross London Rail, Cross Rail manages three teams, namely a Bill team, a development team and a commercial team.

Much of the work will not be able to proceed until a Government Bill goes through, to enable the construction necessary for this new rail infrastructure. It is hoped that this will occur before the end of 2007. CrossRail did research based on a similar Paris rail link project but what tends to slow things down in the UK, compared with France, is the legislative process.

The total cost of the project is estimated at £6 Billion, although £400M was recently saved by the making of one call to the Health and Safety Executive regarding the build specifications of the train doors!

One of the key problems with any project of this size and complexity has to be communication, especially dealing with egos. Engineers, in particular, can have a certain way of doing things, which doesn't always join up with what the information system is trying to achieve.

Long standing disciplines, like engineering, have their own language and naturally endeavour to perform tasks in the easiest way for them. However, these methods might not necessarily be the best way for the project as a whole.

Hence, the IT section frequently has to try to put in place systems which can bring these disparate methods of working together and endeavours to bring all parties on board to 'sing from the same hymn sheet'.

IT support often has the unenviable task of trying to get various groups looking ahead to see the bigger picture and to work together to arrive at the endgame. For the information systems themselves, they need to remain viable in years to come, in scope and deliverables and with regard to the people and their roles.

The job of IS is often as custodian of the intellectual property and to understand the data collected and to collate it within the right context.

There are often so many instructions floating around within organisations that planning is all to often haphazard and IS frequently have to try to 'close the loop' in order for the correct information to get to the correct destination.

The problem really comes when IS has to mandate things without the benefit of either a 'carrot' or a 'stick', particularly in the public sector.

In this case CrossRail have had to put in lots of business processes, such as control documents for the audit trail, as people frequently inadvertently 'hide' information, hence the need is there to teach people the art of document management.

CrossRail has put in place a measure achievement system, which tends to be unpopular but is nethertheless a useful tool. People instinctively don't like to be measured but it allows for 'real time' reporting, whereby a CEO can obtain hard data in a timely fashion and can then make decisions based on that data, which might otherwise not have surfaced so readily.

Before embarking on large projects there is a need to ensure that good specifications are in place, with suitable management of contracts. It is essential to connect data early, as it becomes more difficult the longer the project continues.

The IS system has to remain current at all times. Therefore, there is a need to extend the enterprise and put in an infrastructure, which will in turn enable stakeholders to work together with increased flexibility.

In summary

In order to be able to alter the project terrain in a beneficial way an IS system must:

  • Deliver superb service;
  • Win the trust of the organisations involved;
  • Understand the issues;
  • Articulate the benefits;
  • Learn to go with the flow.