IT enabled business change projects necessitate some of the most complex relationship arrangements of any outsourcing project. Often this is because of the tendency for such business critical IT projects to stretch boundaries, to look to create better, faster and more efficient results.
However, even when you are not delving into the technological unknown, critical IT projects are likely to involve multiple vendors, technologies and people of a non-technical nature within procurement teams, front-line staff, management and even board level decision-makers. With so many opportunities for pitfalls to open up in IT projects, it is essential to have a robust plan of action to look to.
Though technology moves on at pace, the management of IT projects can now be looked at as a mature discipline. So it is all the more surprising that such a high percentage of IT projects still suffer from delays, system inadequacies, stakeholder rejection, budget overruns, spiralling vendor-client relationships and outcomes far removed from outset expectations.
It may be a bold statement, but nonetheless true, that most of these issues are perfectly preventable given the right strategy and framework, and that’s what we aim to help with through our three steps to successful business critical IT projects below.
STEP 1: Ask yourself, is change really necessary?
It is all too easy to get swept along with the belief that the latest mega-trend or sign-here-now deal is a must for your organisation; or for an effective marketing campaign to push through such inconvenient barriers as due diligence on the real benefits to your business, because a product or service will provide you with a much needed edge on your competition.
But is the upheaval and cost of such a project truly justifiable? Is there a business case for such a change? After all, involvement in any sizeable IT project is likely to cause a certain amount of turmoil?
Here are some questions you should be asking yourself to help you decide whether such a project is actually necessary:
- Are our customers unhappy with the service they are currently receiving, and if so, to what extent is IT the reason?
- Is staff turnover, morale or productivity being negatively impacted by some cause that could be resolved through IT?
- Is our current system, delivery partner or provider relationship failing us in some way – lost market share, outages, service levels and so forth?
- Are we missing out on growth opportunities we could otherwise have grasped?
- Is there a significant cost benefit to upgrading, adapting or implementing new technology?
- Are our current line of business applications simply unable to provide us with the management information and business intelligence we need in order to run our business the way we want to?
STEP 2: Determine your business case
Given the magnitude of most business critical IT projects, and the impact they have on the workings of client organisations, it is paramount that everyone from board members to those at the coalface are convinced that the effort is worthwhile. To achieve this, a clear, detailed and compelling business case must be determined and documented that can counter any objection along the way. The starting point is the creation of specific project objectives and outcomes and the identification of associated quantifiable benefits so that when the time comes for such things to be conveyed, scrutinised and challenged, they have a firm foundation.
While the future may seem uncertain it is important to understand how both your industry and the technology that drives it ever forward will change over time, and how this will affect your business. Evaluating the need for change must take into account how competitive advantage could be gained or how loss of market share could be prevented some years into the future. While crystal clarity may be elusive here, you can include educated guesswork based on technology and industry trends in your business case review.
What do those touched by this potential project think about it, where do they see it taking the organisation, and what do they wish such a project will achieve? It is important to get real, tangible information here – quantified value expected, time frames involved, and so on. Including all stakeholders at this early stage increases your chances of their buy-in and support later on.
It’s good to determine what you hope to achieve, but it’s then better to gain a market-eye view of whether these expectations are wholly realistic. So discuss, informally at first, your ideas and objectives with suppliers and vendors to sanity-check their feasibility and the costs of following through with them. Often such conversations will reveal additional insights which could be incorporated within your plans.
The starting point of any project is a complete understanding of where you stand right now. Are all of your current processes documented? Does department ‘A’ know what department ‘B’ is doing? Are there overlaps or obvious opportunities for automation? Even if you have a process document it’s essential that this is reviewed regularly to make sure that micro-management or business change has not adapted (for better or worse) these accepted structures. The finished document will offer vendors the background knowledge they will need to appreciate how their solution can best fit your infrastructure, culture and business environment.
Bring it Together
A good business case is a working document, one that can be used as a benchmark, one that can be revisited and updated to adapt to the realities within which you work, and one that can clearly determine whether new information or unforeseen changes beyond your control now show that you should pause or cease. Putting on the brakes can be an unpopular decision, so you need to be certain of your reasoning to do so or not, and this can only be achieved through the creation and maintenance of a robust business case document.
STEP 3: Decide who is in charge and how you’ll approach the project
Before you launch into your project, first decide who is going to lead the way.
- Will it be you and your internal resources – after all you do know your organisation best.
- Will it be an external consultancy advising and leading – it’s fair to say that after hundreds of similar projects to yours they should be experts in their field.
- Or will you work in collaboration with a specialist service provider, looking to maximise the respective expertise of both parties to deliver expedited project outcomes?
Ultimately this is a decision based on expertise, budget and responsibility.
It may make financial sense on paper to go it alone, using your own people, and the opportunity is certainly there to save a considerable sum with strategies such as cloud or SaaS solutions. But often a project can profit from an external perspective and the pace, cost and end results of a project may well benefit from this. It’s just as easy for an in-house project that lacks leadership, technical ability or vision to become a costly mistake.
Not all organisations have the in-house resources to consider doing it themselves, but then again not all external consultancies are as experienced as they suggest they are. Handing over responsibility to an external consultancy carries significant risk – miscommunications, agenda misalignment, lack of control, and so forth – which is why, despite its potential benefits it is still rare for this approach to translate effectively into day-to-day project practice. If you do decide to go down this route then you will need to structure your contractual relationships to drive the right behaviours and incentivise everyone to keep costs in check.
By far the most common approach is for client organisations to work in collaboration with a specialist service provider. This is the best of both worlds scenario where you provide the subject-matter experts who know how your business operates and what is acceptable for how you will operate, and you also have access to a wealth of expertise from a knowledgeable and experienced partner in the process.
For collaboration to work well there must be trust and good professional ways of working which certainly will have to include well demarcated roles and responsibilities. Often things can get very blurred in a collaborative environment, meaning a loss of accountability which could affect managers in their ability to ensure that actions are completed to time, quality and budget.
Essentially, successful management of business critical IT projects is all about having vision while maintaining a cool head and a logical outlook. It’s about ‘deep future’ thinking, working with facts rather than emotions, and developing a robust quantifiable business case. And it’s about allocating roles and responsibilities to the right experts and never ever taking your eye off the business case ball. There will be times when your business case could steer you from disaster, guide you to more profitable outcomes, or supply you with the reasoning to make the toughest of decisions – to announce viability issues with a project. This is only possible if you afford your business case the resourcing it requires at its development stage.