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Soft skills and success in big IT projects



Interview: Ray Long, career civil servant and new president of the BCS, grapples with perceptions and key factors in what leads to success or failure in setting up new systems

When is an IT project successful? Ray Long says the often used definition – when a system is delivered on time, on budget and to specification – is not always the best assessment. It is often better to look at it a year or two later and see whether it is producing the expected benefits.

It is one of the ideas he is raising in his year as president of BCS – The Chartered Institute for IT, and one which could find sympathetic listeners in the public sector. He is fully aware of the angst it can cause in government, having been in the sector since the mid 1970s in IT and information roles for bodies including the Department of Health, Office of Government Commerce, HM Revenue & Customs, and now the Department for Work and Pensions, for which he is a director.

Taking on the BCS position last month, he said he wanted to focus on what can drive up the success rate of big IT projects, and the first point suggests that it can sometimes be down to perceptions.

Long says the crucial factor in succesful projects, citing the introduction the Congestion Charge and the Oyster Card in London, is that they are generally working well for users. They are seldom completely free of problems, but he suggests that it would be an unrealistic expectation, especially in its early days.

Different nature

“The nature of an IT system is different to one that involves a building or bridge,” he says. “In the latter you can see if there are flaws, but with IT the nature of coding means there are many ways of producing a particular outcome, and unless you're building IT systems of the highest criticality you don't have time to test every element of the code.

“By their nature IT systems will occasionally go wrong. All you have to do is mistype a character in one line of code.

“It's very difficult, if not impossible, to guarantee they will work all the time. You have to set expectations so people won't expect levels of reliability and availability that will be incredibly expensive or impossible to deliver.”

But he does not present this as a case for complacency, and wants to highlight what he thinks can contribute to a successful project.

“In my experience it's often to do with people issues,” he says. “It's one of the things we're interested in at the BCS, about not just how we can train people in the methodologies of good project management, but train them in so called softer skills. These are things like personal effectiveness, emotional intelligence, collaboration and communications and leadership skills. In my experience it's often in those areas that things go wrong.

“When you look at some of the well documented problems with big systems, often it's because people set out to do things in a much tighter timescale than is needed. Perhaps they didn't like to explain to someone in authority that they couldn't do something in a particular timescale and it ended in tears.”

He is pushing the soft skills agenda inside the BCS, and making the point that while there are courses available they are not within the traditional frameworks for learning and development.

Equal footing

“I hope we can add those to the menu and put them on an equal footing with some of the others, discourage people from thinking they can run a project just because they have learned the methodologies.

“The other dimension is something happening in government at the moment, whereby senior people are going through the Major Projects Leadership Academy at the Said Business School. I did it a couple of years ago and think it's a great initiative.

“It discourages the thought that running these mega projects is just scaled up smaller scale project management, it's an art in itself. It's about effectively operating as the chief executive of a temporary organisation. It requires different skills and approaches.”

Of course, there are other factors at work. Long says that sometimes suppliers are presented with unrealistic expectations and, in competing for the business, are unwilling to raise any misgivings until the project is under way.

He acknowledges the well documented problems of changes in direction on major projects, often coming as the politicians make accommodations with broader policies or bolt on a fresh demand. Sometimes government is not an intelligent customer, and sometimes there is a “groupthink” when there is a consensus that a project is going well and nobody wants to stand against it, even if they can see something wrong.

Long says that an important part of overcoming this is for a project leader to make it clear they want to hear of any concerns.

“When it comes to managing projects I'll take advice from anybody if they think I'm making a mistake. Maybe we'll have that conversation and I'll say 'Thanks very much but I still want to do this anyway', in which case I'll take accountability.”

Choose and Book

He also has direct experience of a system that was delivered in line with its specification but not used to the full extent. He spent a year in 2007-08 as programme director of Choose and Book, developed as part of the NHS National Programme for IT to enable GPs to make direct appointments online.

As he took it on it had a take-up rate of 38% and by the end of his time it had increased to 50%, but it never achieved the universal usage that had been planned and was replaced in the middle of last year by NHS e-Referrals – which at the last report had a similar take-up rate.

“I always thought it was a good system and there were lots of reasons for the take-up that were not to do with its quality,” Long says.

“It's recognised now that one of the issues with the National Programme for IT is that the NHS is not a single organisation. It's a collection of organisations that could have different cultures and issues. The attempt was made to impose a centralised solution on a decentralised set of organisations, and that gave rise to a lot of the issues the programme had.

“Before you begin to construct a very large system, you need to understand what you are doing, not just the technology but the nature of the organisation and the way people are going to use it.

“In the case of the NHS system you would talk to people more than was done at the time. Talk to people on the frontline about how they do their jobs. Often they will do it slightly differently to the way people think they are doing them.”

Organisational focus

Long is also focusing on the nature of the BCS, starting conversations about the type of organisation it needs to be, especially for a younger generation of IT professionals who may be less likely to use the traditional networking and resources it offers. Something he wants to establish is what the organisations should look like in 10 years time.

It will be interesting to see how closely this can be integrated with the cause of raising the success rate of IT projects. Nobody could expect answers within his year-long presidency, but starting the conversations is a first step.


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