Making the Grade

FRAMINGHAM (03/27/2000) - It's another failing report card for IT. Last week, Boston Consulting Group Inc. released a study that says, in effect, we're butchering our enterprise projects. You know the ones: ERP and customer relationship management, supply chains and e-commerce. Two-thirds of our big projects were pegged as unsuccessful overall. That's despite the fact that more than 40 percent finished on time and on budget and that 60 percent of the executives who signed off on the projects said they were worth the cost.

But when the projects were scored for value creation, cost-effectiveness, financial impact and business goals, only 33 percent were deemed successes.

Actually, there's plenty of good news in this study. A few years ago, surveys said that only 16 percent of software projects - that's one in six - were completed on time and on budget. Today, we're up to 41 percent. That's a huge improvement.

And a few years ago, a third of all big software projects were canceled outright. That kind of failure used to be routine. Today, an ERP project that completely crashes and burns creates headlines and lawsuits. That kind of failure is no longer accepted. We've come a long way.

But you know we're going to get kicked around for these new numbers. Never mind that the rules have been changed and that the bar has been raised. Never mind why those projects didn't "succeed." IT will get stomped on for not delivering the goods.

So why not? What's missing? The management gurus at Boston Consulting think we need better up-front analysis, clearer strategic vision and tighter project management. Yeah, we've all heard that before.

But maybe it's simpler than that. Maybe what's missing from our enterprise projects is the rest of the enterprise.

Look, these days our organizations don't just need to support business functions with technology. That's what we used to deliver. We can spec out a business function. We can turn it into code. We know how to do that.

But today, our organizations need to run the whole business on technology - and run it faster and better and let everyone work at a higher level and kick everything up a gear.

That's not like any application we've ever delivered before. That's technology as a business platform.

Great idea, huh? Of course, we don't have the products to deliver that kind of platform. Or the technical expertise. Or, most important, the in-depth knowledge of the whole business and the connections with users and the clout in the executive suite - all things we'd need in order to create an IT business platform.

We can hammer on vendors for the products. Maybe we can rent the technical expertise from consultants. But even when those are available to transform the business - that's what these enterprise projects are supposed to do, right? - we've got to have the rest of the business on the project, too.

And that's a tough sell, inside and outside the IT shop. The businesspeople think it's our job. They don't want to be bothered. And lots of IT people don't want users anywhere near what we do.

But we can't do it without them. We've got to have their people for testing and feedback. And their meeting time to hammer out the shape of new business processes. And their knowledge of what works in the business and what doesn't, what's fine and what needs fixing. And their commitment and determination to get it right.

So, yeah, let's make sure we've got good analysis and strategic vision and project management. That's a start. But then let's make sure we've got the rest of the enterprise hip-deep in our enterprise projects, too.

That's the only way we can keep from failing again.

Hayes, Computerworld's staff columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years.

His e-mail address is frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

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