I should like to start off by saying that I don’t think there is anything special about housing IT projects. I don’t believe that IT projects in the housing sector fail any more frequently than they do in any other sector.
I would also like to state that I don’t think that IT projects fail any more often in the public sector than they do in the private sector. We do tend to hear about IT projects failing more in the public sector than we do in the private sector, and I have heard people conclude from this that “the public sector just isn’t very good at running IT projects”. But I don’t think that’s true; it’s merely that the public sector is more open and transparent than the private sector.
Housing providers and local councils don’t have to worry about share prices and need to respond to freedom of information requests from academics and journalists, and as a result there are simply more case studies and articles available about IT project failures in the public sector. For example, the European Services Strategy Unit produced a report* called ‘Cost Overruns, Delays and Terminations’. It contained the findings of a survey of outsourced, public-sector IT projects that suffered from some form of failure or delay. If any of you are currently in the middle of an IT project that isn’t going so well, I recommend reading this report – I found it quite cathartic!
If IT projects in all sectors have their challenges, why do IT projects go wrong? A professor at Duke University’s School of Business argues that this has significantly more to do with strategy than with the actual technology itself or the people who deliver it.
Duke University’s Professor Jeremy Petranka said, “While it’s really easy to place the blame on chief information officers, eventually we have to acknowledge the fact that there seems to be a fundamental weakness throughout the industry. If we look more into why projects tend to fail, it’s fairly obvious that the real issue at play isn’t a lack of IT ability. Instead, it seems to be a lack of deep understanding of what makes up strategy in general, what makes up IT strategy specifically, and how these two connect within an organisation.”
In housing IT, words like mobile working, cloud computing and big data get thrown around a lot.
With reference to the types of problems that we as housing professionals are trying to solve, Petranka said, “These aren’t strategies, these are tactics. The fact is, there are a huge amount of IT skills that we could bring into an organisation; the ones we should bring in are the ones that will make us good. Everything else is a waste of resources.”
For example, an investment bank focused on high-speed trading needs the ability to develop high-speed applications and cutting-edge architecture, but beautiful presentation is less important, Petranka said. Conversely, for a large healthcare organisation seeking to improve operational efficiency, being able to visualise operational data for doctors, nurses and administrators is significantly more valuable.
What often prevents organisations from focusing correctly, Petranka said, is a failure of IT strategy to be driven by the broader business strategy.
He said, “Remember, IT is just a tool to solve specific business problems. If those problems aren’t clear, then there’s no chance of the IT department having a coherent strategy.”
Often in the housing sector there is a lack of clarity concerning the exact nature of the problem trying to be solved. For example, we might say that we need a new homelessness system because new legislation is coming into force, but is that really the problem we are trying to solve? Or we introduce technology to reduce staff costs in response to rent reductions, but then we are too worried about the effects on staff morale to actually admit to anyone why the technology is being introduced. When we do this, our staff are then free to make up their own reasons for why the technology was introduced and what benefits it is supposed to achieve. When this happens, those same staff are often left with a feeling that the IT project failed to deliver the outcomes they thought it would.
The Project Management Institute’s 2017 ‘Pulse of the Profession’ report found that 28 per cent of strategic initiatives were deemed to be outright failures. Some 37 per cent of the more than 3,000 project management professionals who took part in the PMI’s research cited their senior management’s inability to clearly specify achievable milestones or objectives as a cause of failure. Other causes of failure included poor communication (19 per cent), lack of communication by senior management (18 per cent), employee resistance (14 per cent) and insufficient funding (9 per cent).
And speaking of money, the same report found that due to poor project performance, organisations waste an average of $97 million for every $1 billion invested. That’s better than 2016’s $122 million in waste, but still a significant loss.
But this isn’t the only recent research that seems to be attempting to identify reasons why IT projects go wrong. PwC’s 2017 ‘Global Digital IQ Survey’ polled 2,216 business and IT leaders from 53 countries and asked them what hinders digital transformation. Some 64 per cent of respondents said a lack of collaboration between IT and business is usually to blame, 58 per cent cited inflexible or slow processes, 41 per cent listed lack of integration between new and existing technologies, 38 per cent named outdated technologies and 37 per cent put down lack of properly skilled teams.
But listing the reasons why IT projects go wrong isn’t in itself very helpful. We also need to think about how we remedy these problems.
The same PwC study identified organisations with 80 per cent or more of their projects being completed on time and within budget while also meeting original goals and business intent. The study classified these organisations as “champions”. The report also highlighted the fact that these champions had invested in several common areas, including the leadership skills of project professionals, benefits realisation management, project management offices and actively engaged executives.
Over the past few years all RSLs have been trying to save money in response to the one per cent reduction in rent. In many organisations, training budgets have been squeezed and investments in developing these sorts of skills might not have been given the priority that they should have been.
The reasons for housing IT projects going wrong are varied and complex. But in the words of the Baz Luhrmann song ‘Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen)’, “If I could offer you only one tip for the future”, I would say invest time and money in training senior managers, housing professionals and IT staff in project management. Any other advice I might offer would, I am afraid, have “no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience”.
Chris Deery is head of housing IT at Solihull Community Housing.