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Has IT Become a Dirty Word?

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There is a very good chance that the majority of the people relying on IT in their businesses were tempted to answer “Yes”. How come one of the industries responsible for many of the achievements of our civilisation has become the object of such widespread distrust and cynicism?

It is so common these days to start a tsunami of winging and complaints at the very mention of any of the words software, hardware, IT. What is the reason for this type of attitude and is it possible to achieve “IT nirvana” at all?

Before attempting to provide any suggestions or answers it may be useful to try and identify some of the causes that created this situation in the first place. Usually they vary from project to project but some general symptoms seem to be present more often than not.

Leadership failure

While many people may disagree with this, it seems that the main reason for over 80% of all horror stories related to IT is the “human factor”. In other words, technology fails very rarely on its own. It is the way it is used (abused?) and the expectations placed on it that create problems and disasters. And whether, as business owners/managers, we like it or not, the root cause usually can be traced to the top.

Leadership is just as important in IT projects, as it is in any other aspect of the business. A leadership failure is followed inevitably by a project failure and, subsequent, “witch hunting”.

And in most companies it is the senior management team that needs to take the blame. It is much more difficult for a middle manager to get the same cooperation from various business units than for a senior manager.

Even if the most senior people are not directly involved in the project they need to be accessible most of the time. This way any minor “hiccups” can be fixed before they become major “hiccups”.

Lack of common sense

For some unknown reason when dealing with IT-related issues the common sense just seems to go out of the window. The processes and criteria used for any other business activity or purchase are disregarded and a variety of “exotic” approaches with little business sense are applied. “People in the know”, i.e. technologists, use acronyms and terms no one understands. Other people on the team don’t want to lose face and just listen to the gibberish.

But the technology people are not the best in solving business problems. Quite often their focus is primarily on technology and that is simply not enough. Each IT project needs to have clearly defined objectives and deliverables, i.e. “why” and “what”. “How” needs to be a secondary consideration.

Poor planning

Unfortunately, IT project management is still somewhat of an art, rather than science. Due to the high complexity of most IT projects it is very difficult to estimate costs and durations within a project. The best project managers usually come within a range of 10%. While 10% may not seem that bad, the major problem here is that people who can achieve these levels of accuracy are few and far between.

On the other hand when a project is underestimated by 50-100% (there are enough examples around), how would a manager feel going to the board or the bank and asking for more money halfway through the project. Let’s face it, nobody wants to be in that situation. Yet, it happens so often.

Unrealistic expectations

There’s no question that everybody wants to pay for a little 3-cylinder car and get a Rolls Royce. Yet, we all know that’s not possible, and after parting away with the money we drive away in a car that makes us happy. Not so, with IT, though. Every project starts with a lot of enthusiasm, good intentions and a splendid vision for the future. Vendors present their products, customers select a supplier and implementation is under way.

Together with implementation, “project creep” is also under way. A new button here, a different colour scheme there, and so on. Most of these changes seem trivial from outside. Anyone who has been in IT for some time, though, knows that some of them may require huge amounts of work to be done. What then follows is disappointment, missed deadlines and increased prices.

It is unfair to put the blame only on one party, though. Usually, this situation is a result of major miscommunication on both sides. Suppliers have a natural tendency to overpromise and underquote in order to get the business. Buyers on the other hand tend to underestimate the size of most projects in order to fit within budgets, look better in the eyes of the board, etc.

WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?

Actually, the above problems may be easier to avoid than most people believe. What’s needed is proper preparation, right people on the team and good communication with other parts of the business.

Select a sponsor. Before the start of the project select one of the senior managers to become its sponsor. And not just on paper! The sponsor must be a person whose division will benefit directly from the project. This will ensure they will provide assistance when needed. If the Director of Marketing is responsible for the implementation of a financial system they are unlikely to give it the same attention as the CFO, for example.

Identify outcomes. Determine as objectively as possible what can be delivered realistically by the selected vendor based on the allocated budget. If somebody comes to you and offers to sell you a brand new car for $5,000 it is highly unlikely you will buy it. It is much more likely you will think there’s something wrong with the car, may be it’s stolen, or been in an accident, etc. Same logic needs to apply here. If possible try to involve somebody with an accounting background.

And, please, be fair! If the final price doesn’t allow the vendor to make a reasonable profit, they will still make it by taking shortcuts. And this will definitely become lose-lose situation.

Become an avid hunter for information. Try to speak to peers in your industry or related associations. Other companies may have implemented a similar system recently. In such case, there will be a lot you can learn from them. Both, in relation to their successes and problems they have encountered.

Blogs are another great way to get obtain information. Find a relevant blog, and you may be pleasantly surprised how much people are prepared to share. This in turn will definitely help you to avoid mistakes that may cost thousands.

‘Tame’ users. As soon as word is out about the new project an avalanche of user wants will be created. Most of these will be valid business requests and need to be considered. Some of these may need to be left for the next version and it is always good to try and identify those at the beginning. However, some of the more exotic desires need to be canned straight away. If the cost of the project will go up by 10% just to provide users with the option of changing the colour of their menu buttons, may be they will have to live with the default colour.

Create the team. Even if the project is fully implemented by the vendor there’s still a need for client’s people there. For smaller projects they may be involved on a part-time basis. For larger projects it will be a full-time role for some people. And, ideally, more than one person will be involved from customer’s side.

Most importantly, there needs to be somebody on the team who is a “natural” diplomat, a project “envoy” so to speak. This person will be the link between the vendor and the various departments in the business. Their technical background is not that important, however, their communication and negotiation skills are crucial. It is inevitable there will be some misunderstandings between users and the vendor. No matter how detailed the initial specification was, some things would have been interpreted differently by various people. It is the job of the “envoy” to smooth out these differences and, thus, prevent the project from taking an unwanted direction.

A FINAL THOUGHT …

So, what about the “IT nirvana”? Well, full “nirvana” may be impossible to achieve, and not just in IT, but something close to it seems quite within reach with just a few simple steps. When approached properly technology can bring real benefits to any business regardless of size or industry. It can help all of us operate more efficiently, compete better and deliver improved products or services to our customers.

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Mario Bojilov is the Managing Director of Meta Business Systems. He has been involved with the IT industry since 1989 in a variety of technical and managerial roles.

Meta Business Systems provides services to small and medium businesses. The company specialises in custom-build databases and IT Risk Management. Their web address is: www.mbsys.com.au.

Has IT Become a Dirty Word?
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This entry was posted in Business.
About Mario Bojilov
Mario Bojilov is the Managing Director of Meta Business Systems. He has been involved with the IT industry since 1989 in a variety of technical and managerial roles.

Meta Business Systems provides services to small and medium businesses. The company specialises in custom-build databases and IT Risk Management. Their web address is: www.mbsys.com.au. WebProNews Writer
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