The ideal project sponsor has a bag of money and a cricket bat. That is, he or she can make things happen - with the CIO's help, of course.
The person-centred information system was designed to allow people who travel in the British community delivering health services - chiropodists, district nurses, midwives and so on - to collect patient records electronically.
However solid it looked on paper as a technology solution, says Cranfield School of Management Professor of Management Information Systems Chris Edwards, the project might have careered towards disaster had not the project sponsor figured out well in advance that each health worker would need a completely unaffordable 16 days of training in the new system.
In an area of health delivery increasingly reliant on the rare few individuals prepared to work for a pittance in order to give something back to society, such an overhead could have proved a massive impediment. After all, who could possibly replace such stalwarts while their training was under way? Instead, recognizing the overload ahead of time may well prove to have been the project's salvation.
Why do projects fail? The root causes of project failure can all too often be traced to poor decisions made during their conception, Edwards says. Surveys of the literature show many projects get off track before they even begin, while a Cranfield study shows most organizations don't know how to develop a proposal. Not only is the early stage of the project critical, so too is the role of the sponsor in that early stage as well as in securing benefits realization once the project is complete. In fact, Edwards and colleague Rod Lambert have come to the conclusion that the sponsor - working under the guidance of the CIO - is one of the central keys to the success of any project.
"We've done a lot of research on project managers, and when we asked them: 'What was the major problem you have when you are running a project?', nearly always, top of the list is the word 'sponsorship'," Lambert says. "And what they mean by that is that the sponsor is not around enough; that they're too hands off, they're too far removed from the key decisions that have to be made in the project. So the sponsor needs to be involved early in the development of the business case. The sponsor I think is the leader of the development of that business case."
Take the Person Centred Information System project highlighted above. Edwards says without the nous of the project sponsor the project could have just continued the IT's record of expensive project failures. Now the pilot will go ahead in 10 National Health Trusts in Northern Ireland only after the developers work out how to redesign the application to considerably reduce the amount of training required.
"Many of these [health workers] are women maybe of the age of 40 or 50, but near retirement. The problem you've got is that the amount of training they require because of their age and their previous experience is very considerable," Edwards says. "They'll be working on their own out in patients' homes, so there isn't a help desk handy. Now who's going to provide the health-care while these people are off on a very considerable amount of training? If you don't put the cost in of these locums, or the overtime, then the project is completely skewed.
"You think all you've got to do is to buy a piece of technology. Well that isn't true. The real cost [in this case] is actually in the cost of training the individuals, not in the technology."
Projects go wrong, the Cranfield academics say, when project teams focus on the technology rather than the delivery of business benefits and all of the things that have to be managed successfully to deliver those business benefits.
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