IT and Digital Failures – the Time for Study is Over – it’s Way Past Time for Action!

A recent article in diginomica, “Senate agrees to launch inquiry into Australia’s digital government failures” caught my eye. My immediate reaction was “Here we go again”, quickly followed by a somewhat more lyrical “When will they ever learn?”
The challenges of IT projects have been analyzed extensively over many decades. Most of us are familiar with The Standish Chaos Survey, the 2015 results of which reported successful projects constantly representing only ~30% of the 50,000 surveyed projects (where success is defined as on time, on budget and with a satisfactory result).

A 2012 Mckinsey article, based on research conducted on more than 5,400 IT projects by Mckinsey and the University of Oxford, found that half of large IT projects (costing >$ 15 million) massively blew their budgets. On average, large IT projects ran 45% over budget and 7% over time, while delivering 56% less value than predicted. The projects in total had a cost overrun of $66 billion, more than the GDP of Luxembourg. The impact of these failures is more than financial. In the case of healthcare, for example, the impact includes significant avoidable loss of life, pain and suffering.

More anecdotally, The International Project Leadership Academy Catalogue of Catastrophe records quite a few troubled projects from around the world, many, but not all of them IT projects. The list includes the UK’s NHS National Program for IT in Health, the original budget for which was $4.6 billion, which had risen to $24 billion when it was cancelled in 2010. At the time, and possibly still now, it was the world’s largest civil IT project.

Challenges to success – being on time, on budget, and achieving the expected value, are common across private and public sectors and across all jurisdictions. If one were to take all the studies, audit reports, and other post-mortem review of so-called “IT projects” or, more recently, “digital” initiatives, you could fill a medium-sized – possibly larger – library. The good news is that you would only have to read one or two of them to realize that they all came to basically the same conclusions, and made basically the same recommendations. It’s great business for consultants, as they can usually just dust off and tailor a previous report – a great but expensive example of re-use. Over the same time, research papers and articles beyond count have been written on this topic, and frameworks, methodologies, tools and techniques have been produced (almost) ad nauseam. Yet, despite this, very little has changed, other than that the impact of these failures, as technology becomes increasingly embedded in everything organizations do, is both more severe and more visible, not the least so in the public sector.

The underlying causes of both earlier “IT project” failures, and those of more recent “digital” initiatives are basically the same. They include:
1. A continued, often blind focus on the technology itself, rather than the change – increasingly significant and complex organizational change that technology both shapes and enables, and which is required if organizations are to come anywhere near realizing the potential value from their digital investments;
2. The unwillingness of business leaders to get engaged in, and take ownership of this change – preferring to abdicate their accountability to the IT function (I should add that I have also seen cases where IT leaders know this should be owned by the business leadership team, but do not believe that they have the competence to do so);
3. Failure to inclusively and continually involve the stakeholders affected by the change, without whose understanding and “buy in” failure is pretty much a foregone conclusion;
4. A lack of rigour at the front-end of an investment decision, including, what is almost universally a totally ineffective business case process, resulting in lack of clarity around the expected outcomes, the full scope of effort required, the assumptions being made, the risks involved, and how progress and success will be measured;
5. Not actively managing for value; and
6. Not managing the journey beyond the initial “project” completion.

A much over-used definition of insanity, commonly yet apparently inaccurately attributed to Albert Einstein, is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” This is certainly a good description of the where we are today. It should have been obvious to anyone reading any of the previously mentioned reports and studies that the issue of IT or digital failure needs to be re-framed from a technology delivery problem to a business problem of managing increasingly significant and complex organizational change. A business problem that has had a global cost estimated by Michael Krigsman, a respected industry analyst, to be in the order of $US3 trillion/year. And that cost doesn’t include opportunity cost – the non-realization of expected value.

So, why is it that business leaders – in both the private and public sector, have not stepped up to the plate? Despite the term “digital” now being much more commonly used – or abused –  in place of “IT”, digital is still largely equated with, and thought of as, a technology implementation issue. We certainly don’t need any more studies! As a client of mine once said, the less will we have to solve a problem, the more we study it. We need leaders to finally wake up and understand that this is not a technology implementation problem, but a problem around understanding, accepting accountability for, and managing the business change required to create and sustain business value from leveraging digital. We need these leaders to move beyond eternal studies to action. I discussed this in an earlier post, “Digital Leadership – Much More Than IT Leadership”. What follows builds on parts of that post.

In this new digital era, technology itself, how technology is delivered, how it is used, and by whom are changing at an ever-increasing rate. This is blurring the roles and responsibilities of IT and other business functions, and giving rise to a fundamental rethinking of how IT, and its delivery and use is governed and managed, and the capabilities that are required to ensure and assure that the use of technology contributes to creating and sustaining business value. The role of the CIO is being questioned ad nauseam, particularly as it relates to the CMO, and a new position, the CDO, is appearing. And, of course, let’s not forget the CTO. However, the answer is not as simple as renaming the CIO position, getting a new CIO, or appointing a few new CXOs (or now, due to alphabetic limitations, CXXOs).

I have, over many decades, used the simple formula below to describe reason for the current dismal state of affairs:


The formula represents that simply applying new technology (NT) to an old organization (OO) results in a Complex Old Organization (COO). Gavin Slater, the new head of the Australian Government’s Digital Transformation Agency (DTA), used a variation of this formula in a recent address to the Australian Information Industry Association, in which he replaced COO with EOO – expensive old organization.

Digitization cuts across organizational silos, and across all levels of organizations. Realizing value from digital requires more than putting lipstick on the old industrial age pig, with its hierarchical, command and control approach to governance, leadership and management. It requires continually rethinking, reimagining and reinventing every aspect of our organizations. Digital transformation, or more accurately the on-going and ever-evolving digital journey towards a digital ecosystem will require digital literacy and collaboration across and beyond the C-suite to ensure that their organization has, as EY’s David Nichols said in a May 2014 CIO Insight interview, “an integrated and holistic plan to really leverage digital”. This includes questioning their very purpose, how they are organized, the very nature of the work they do, who does it, and how it’s done. It requires challenging established cultures and long-held beliefs. The digital economy both enables and requires a different view of leadership. As Sally Helgesen said in a May, 2014 article, “Leadership’ isn’t Just for Leaders anymore”, leadership no longer, or should no longer equate with positional power and has, or should become a behaviour that is broadly distributed, recognize and rewarded.

Organizations must tap into the collective knowledge of all their people…~70% of whom feel no engagement with their organizations today. As Julian Stodd said in a June, 2017 blog, “The Age of Engagement”:

“The mechanisms and mindset of engagement in many organisations lags far behind the lived reality of the Social Age: Organisations exist in a realm of expertise, domain specific input, hierarchical power, at a time when communities are rising, co-creation is maturing, and dynamism is key. The solution will not be adaptation within an existing mindset, but rather a paradigm shift to a new space: the Age of Engagement.”

Peter Staal extends this thinking in an August, 2017 article, “Organizations of the future operate as communities”, in which he says:

“Meeting the demands of the digital age will require a new way of working. Take for instance the decision-making process. Organizations no longer have the time traditionally taken up by this process through a decision tree. The future belongs to organizations which are made up of multiple autonomously operating communities forming part of the larger whole (so-called pods).”

This is not a new concept. It was original posited in the early 20th century by Oswald von Neil-Breuning with his law of subsidiarity – an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. This means locating accountability and decision-making at the most appropriate level, while supporting decisions with broader and more knowledgeable input.

We could have adopted such a concept long before now, indeed, some organizations have done so. For organizations to survive and thrive in the digital economy, this is no longer an option! We certainly now have the technology available today to support such a concept. However, I’m not sure we will see this widely accepted  any time soon – likely not in my lifetime. As Steve Vamos said in a 2012 Australian Review article:

“The challenge ahead is to unwind more than a century of industrial-age mindsets at work which are controlling, mistake-averse and “know it all” and evolve them into mindsets that are enabling, learning and willing to try new things and fail.”

Laurence J. Peter, author of The Peter Principle, echoed those sentiments when he said, “Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.” The reasons for this are well laid out by Ted Bauer in an August, 2017 article, “Bureaucratic management ain’t going anywhere”, as summarized in the figure below.

As an eternal optimist, I hope that he’s wrong, but as a realist, having pushed similar ideas for many decades, I think it will take some time before we see the extinction of the organizational dinosaurs. This will certainly be the case if we stand on the sidelines and wait for it to happen. As a former colleague, Don Tapscott,  has said for decades “Leadership can come from anywhere”. We must all take a leadership role in making it happen.

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