Thursday, February 05, 2009

Massive IT Programmes

I have just recently changed jobs, joining Cognizant’s Advanced Solutions Practice, having spent the last three and a half years working for BT as Chief Architect on the NHS National Programme for IT. Moving on from that role has given me the chance to reflect a little on some of the challenges that I faced in that role.

The programme is frequently in the press, and has been labelled as a classic example of a failing IT programme. Though the press coverage has in general been ill-informed and inaccurate there have undoubtedly been problems with delivering the programme, for many reasons, which I will not get in to here. However some general observations can be made about massive IT programmes.

One of the greatest challenges in programmes such as this one is the sheer size of change involved in terms of both business and technology. The traditional programme and project management approach to dealing with the complexity that this scale brings is to follow a reductionist strategy, breaking the overall programme into smaller manageable parts. The difficulty with this is choosing how to slice and dice the large problem. Executed correctly this approach allows application of traditional programme management and systems engineering techniques to ensure delivery within acceptable parameters of cost, schedule and risk. The down side is that if the overall problem is divided incorrectly the small parts so obtained are as difficult to deliver as the overall programme. Moreover this approach assumes that such a division is possible.

What alternatives are there then? That is a difficult question to answer since this is really an embryonic and immature field. Historically the approach taken was to execute a small-scale pilot programme then scale this up to the size of the large programme, but that takes time and can cause loss of momentum. An alternative would be to take an evolutionary approach, similar to some agile approaches to software development: execute a solution with acknowledged flaws, and evolve this via a series of small iterations in to a solution that is ‘good enough’ to satisfy the key stakeholders of the programme.

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