The 1990s very much seems a decade where the dominant catchcry is: "more is less". It is very hard to find any IS executive who does not feel they are working more hours with less staff than they were in the 1980s. In fact one InTEP member told me that he once complained to his executive that he was finding it difficult to manage all the work he had on his plate. Unfortunately, the executive's response was that perhaps he should work weekends to catch up! Business executives clearly have little patience with IS. At a time when the accountant reigns supreme, and everyone is vigorously reducing business costs, IS expenditure continues to rise. Yet the track record for these investments has been abysmal. This was highlighted by a report from the Standish Group which revealed that 40 per cent of IT development projects are cancelled before completion and another 33 per cent of the remaining encounter budget or time overruns. Standish estimated that these deficiencies cost American business around $145 billion per year.
The IS industry has been conscious for some time that these results reflect poorly on IT. The University of Technology published in the Australian Computer Journal in 1996 the results of a survey it conducted into how well middle and upper level managers are equipped to meet the management challenges of the industry. When it looked at the skills needed the top rating items centred around issues of people management and communication. While project management was rated eighth, all the skills ranked above it would influence how well the executive was able to manage projects. In the US version of CIO, a recent article by Tom Field on project management identified the seven deadly sins of IS projects. Running through them all are the characteristics of poor project management. This includes not scoping the project nor determining objectives, not obtaining business sponsorship or business ownership and not tracking the project against milestones. To guard against these dangers the Centre for Project Management Excellence spotlighted the characteristics of companies that excel in project management. In particular, it stressed that you must not outsource project management. Rather this should be a core competency to build up. In addition, it has noticed that successful project management practitioners tend to share the characteristics of the project office. By this the centre was spotlighting a trend to establish cross-functional teams of business and technical staff to manage IS projects.
Other research highlights the benefit of utilising tools to complement the process. Traditional project scheduling and budgeting software tools have experienced a 42 per cent CAGR in the 1990s, no doubt fuelled by the increasing power available at the desktop. However, new systems such as groupware, intranets and workflow have also emerged over this time to help with collaboration on major projects. Standish also identifies other factors that can influence the success of IS projects. These complement the University of Technology study. They include user involvement, executive support, clearly understood objectives and good communication. The latest research from Standish appears to indicate that things are getting better for IS projects. It has followed 23,000 IS projects in the US since 1994. Between then and now the chances for IS projects succeeding have increased from 9 per cent to 24 per cent. However, what is more interesting is that the average cost of the projects has almost halved. This is important because Standish reveals, a direct correlation between large projects and failures. Projects costing under $750,000 succeeded 55 per cent of the time. Furthermore, when these projects entailed less than six people and took less than six months success rates were even higher.
These findings are clearly encouraging since they seem to indicate the project management skills of IS are on the increase. If so then it is likely that this will give renewed confidence in the potential of IS among business executives.
IS could well be ensuring that it maintains its immunisation against the cutbacks likely in any further recessions over the next five years.
Peter Hind is the manager of User Programs, which includes InTEP, at IDC Australia
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