Digital enhancements

9 Oct 13
Digital projects provide essential training for tomorrow’s leaders, and should involve an organisation’s brightest and best people

By John Thornton | 09 October 2013

Digital projects provide essential training for tomorrow’s leaders, and should involve an organisation’s brightest and best people.

Digital enhancements

Today, nearly all public sector organisations are digital enterprises; they are entirely dependent upon digital information and technology to deliver services and to communicate with their service users.

For most organisations, this means that technology is no longer something that is grafted on to the organisation to deal with specific tasks, such as in the past when you added a payroll or email system. Now, information is the lifeblood of the organisation – and technology provides the arteries and blood vessels that are designed to deliver the right information to the right place, and at the right time, drawing on a raft of interrelated subsystems.

There was a time when we sought to develop new computer systems using a sequential design process, often referred to as the ‘waterfall model’, which started by attempting to define exactly what the project was expected to produce. The project team then went away and built a product or system that they thought met those requirements, and then attempted to present a finished product – usually many months, if not years, after the project was first specified. The result was usually disappointing because in the intervening period, the requirements had changed, the original personnel had moved on, and the technology and expectations had evolved. 

These problems led to the development of new approaches like Agile Project Management, the Dynamic Systems Development Method, Lean Development and prototyping. However, the problems of systems development have continued. 

In both the public and private sectors, probably only about 25% of projects fully deliver against client expectations – and high-profile, expensive failures continue to hit the news headlines. Even if they do the job, very few projects are delivered on time and to budget.

Many organisations, however, still struggle to properly define, procure and implement new systems. A recurrent problem is that organisations over- specify their requirements and try to plan for every eventuality. Many systems have a life of only three to five years, and as a rough guide, 80% of the solution can often be produced in 20% of the time required for the full solution. 

Focusing on what is important and aiming for simple solutions that are fit for purpose can therefore significantly reduce costs, risks and timescales. Plus, an iterative process that builds on and refines an initial basic system will usually be delivered far faster, and has more chance of doing the required job.

There are many reasons why projects fail to deliver against expectations. First, these new digital organisations are complex, and are operating in a dynamic and changing environment, with many different, complex and interrelated information systems. But importantly, more projects still fail because of people issues than because of technology problems. 

Second, implementing organisational change – especially where facilitated by technology – is always difficult as it means bringing people together from different parts of the organisation, who often have very different perspectives as well as very different motivations.

Therefore, our aim must be to develop more digitally skilled people who are able to take on these types of projects and significantly increase the chances of success. To achieve this, organisations should see involvement in digital projects as an essential training ground for their best people.

There is probably no better way to develop a deeper understanding of how an organisation really works and to hone your management skills than to lead or work within a team on this type of project. Surely, this should be seen as indispensable training for all future directors and chief executives. It would also ensure that more leaders know how to take the reins when projects begin to go off the rails, and can then steer them back to success.

John Thornton is an independent adviser and writer on business transformation, financial management and innovation

This opinion column was first published in the October edition of Public Finance magazine


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