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The Human at the Heart of an IT Project

August 30th 2012


An article in “Direction informatique” magazine entitled “Implanter les TI avec succès: tenir compte du facteur humain” (Implement It Successfully: Take the Human Factor Into Account) exposed the human challenges that come with an IT project.

Given the constant exuberance that is part of IT advancements, an exuberance centred primarily on novelty and technological progress, the article was an important reminder, a warning that an IT manager must never lose sight if he hopes to reach his destination…arriving at the right port and on time.

I would, therefore, like to add my field experience to that of the writers of the article to confirm that the human element is indeed a key component that must be factored in from the outset before you embark on any IT project to increase its chances of success.

Two other questions immediately come to mind: "Can you determine the impact of the human component beforehand?", "How do you control it and minimize its impact?".

If the theme sounds a bit like a déjà vu, the appalling statistics littering the road of IT projects remind us of just the opposite. Indeed, if one relies on various recent statistics such as the "CHAOS 2009" study of the Standish Group, we are still in a zone, let us not be afraid of words, discouraging.

By determining the general characteristics of a successful project in the following manner:

  • A final system that meets functional needs that are defined during the initial planning phase;
  • A project that is completed within a specific timeframe;
  • A project that is completed on a budget.

Their 2009 study revealed that only one-third (33%) of projects were deemed successful in 2009. Worse yet, cost overruns on projects with problems are regularly in the 100% to 200% range! The very thought that public funds, your tax dollars, are being pumped into major IT projects in this manner no doubt makes your skin crawl.

I suggest reading Frederic Casagrande's blog entitled "Lost in Chaos" to view a chart of the study's findings. A second chart reveals that results have been dismally consistent since 1994.

Now, we keep talking about statistics, but where does the human element enter the equation? Do you simply focus on the first characteristic indicated above, that is, "an end system that meets functional needs", and expect the first connection to hit you over the head?

How can a computer system not meet the functional needs of the end-users for whom an IT project has been specifically implemented and where their needs have been identified and defined? It is simply illogical.

While not downplaying or maligning the importance of efficient project management methods, as the PMI recommends, I believe that by asking the question here, we should answer it: end-users are simply not consistently included in the IT project management and development process enough. Yet everyone is for virtue.

This is where we come to one of the critical elements cited in the Direction Informatique article: management commitment.

Again, you might ask, where is the problem? Do the companies that invest in a promising IT project do so because they firmly believe it offers a crucial edge in their development strategy? I do not believe this is the case, or if they do, they do not always do so with a commitment that is felt, supported, and expressed daily to end-users.

The fundamental problem is that even today, the executives of far too many organizations regard investing in an IT project as little more than purchasing computer equipment. Sorry to burst your bubble, if that is the case, but approaching an IT project based on investing in technological infrastructure is tantamount to buying a hammer and expecting it to come with a house.

But getting back to an active management commitment, it is important to examine new system development approaches that are considered "flexible methods" that target, among other things, involving the end-user in the development process to guarantee a better quality product that is in keeping with their initial expectations, which is very good, since I obviously must endorse the position I am defending.

However, a few obstacles get in the way if we look beyond the principle of working closely together, which bolsters the argument in favour of management making a proactive and firm commitment to an IT project, including:

  • What happens if the end-users are not interested in sharing their demands or, more commonly, if it is always the same users who respond and impose their opinions?
  • Should we allow new project directions to emerge due to the continuous stream of requests for adjustments and improvements from end-users, only to find ourselves with functional features that are not essential to the strategic plan?

In broader interactive settings, freedom of expression can indeed result in a loss of control. Therefore, a flexible management project that is not established based on specific strategic directions and corporate actions is liable to result in a computer system that does meet the needs of end-users, but not necessarily within the scheduled timeframe, on a budget or entirely in keeping with the company's initial strategic goals.

In conclusion, human communication is a variable that is more sensitive than any technology that is part of an IT project. I, therefore, urge all senior executives who are preparing a company IT project to approach the planning phase of their IT project with a management focus and effort on the human component. As a rule of thumb, I suggest doubling the effort that you might first think is initially enough for the time being. I will address methodological specifications and suggestions later to maximize the chances of your IT projects succeeding.

I would like to share the exhilaration I experience, even today, when tackling the complex challenges that come with implementing business management IT projects, the type of project that blends high technologies, operations management and humans, three diametrically opposed specialty fields. These three mismatched components may be contributing factors to the historically poor success rate within the field to date.

Here's to management success!

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