Public sector IT has a poor – albeit partially deserved – reputation. The complaints of project over-runs, spiralling costs and in some cases, outright failure, are uncomfortably common. But Liz Ure, head of information strategy at The Scottish Executive, thinks she has uncovered the recipe for successful IT implementations. Her secret ingredient? A little bit of chocolate.
Ure has recently overseen a highly successful and widely admired scheme to improve information sharing and collaboration at the Executive. The project involved over 5,500 staff, located in offices across Scotland, even some based in Europe, all of whom must ensure the smooth running of Scotland’s devolved government in areas such as health, education, agriculture and transport.
The geographic spread of employees meant paper-based communication was inefficient; the vast number of documents being exchanged exacerbated these difficulties. An internal study showed that, in the worse cases, staff were wasting four hours a week chasing after vital information.
But while senior management at the Executive realised, back in 2002, that an electronic document and records management (EDRM) system could bring greater efficiency, Ure says she had no intention of treating the move to the new system as solely an IT project.
The move to EDRM affected “every bit of work” that the staff were doing. That meant getting buy-in from the staff became a top priority – and that’s where the chocolate came in.
To raise awareness of the project, Ure and her team handed out bars of chocolate with the word ‘dream’ printed on them – a playful reminder of the EDRM acronym, being used to promote the project. Three years down the line, and staff still fondly remember the chocolate bars they were given, says Ure.
Of course, it took more than confectionary to win over hearts and minds, explains Ure, but it was, nonetheless, an important part of the strategy to constantly remind employees of the project goals. “We had to think like marketing or sales people,” she says.
The chocolate gift formed part of the strategy to put the message out to the organisation. Elsewhere, videos of the project were played in office foyers, conferences and roadshows were held to keep the staff informed. “We just repeated the messages again and again and again in a number of different ways.”
Making people “want a records management system” meant that messages had to be targeted at a variety of users within the Executive. For example, the strategy for dealing with top management meant hosting a number of information management conferences and even bringing in the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, to discuss how the EDRM system would make it easier to implement the Freedom of Information Act.
However, despite the careful implementation plans, Ure is candid about the problems that needed to be overcome. For example, it quickly became apparent that the user-training plan needed revising. While some employees would take half an hour to learn how to use the new system, others required over three months training – and in some cases even this proved inefficient.
The Scottish Executive
“The idea that you have a customer base that has a variable amount of time needed to be spent with them ranging from anything from half an hour to three months or more would fill any project manager with horror,” says Ure. It is impossible to plan an implementation of an EDRM system for 5,500 users with that level of variation using traditional project planning mechanisms, she says.
Instead of pushing the EDRM programme forward, Ure took the courageous decision to call a time-out, and revisit the training programme. A new, more user-focused plan, using scenario-based training was implemented; user concerns over a lack of back-up material were addressed by building an online FAQ facility and users were provided with a handbook, guiding them through the basics of the new system.
Ure says that having the courage to stop the project meant departing radically from traditional project management practices. Gantt charts – favoured by many project managers – were the first to go. While the charts provide a way to represent the progress of simple tasks, the EDRM programme had too many interdependent components, says Ure. The only thing “the Gantt charts were telling us was that the project wasn’t working,” she adds.
These types of charts are also only relevant for the life of the project and it is important to realise that when a project goes ‘live’ it does not mean it has come to an end. “This is a big working practice change and you cannot expect it to embed into the organisation overnight,” says Ure. And while project teams will be disbanded at the end, there will always be a need for ongoing support afterwards.
The eventual success of the project, however, was down to the ability to select the right people needed for the different stages of the implementation and to find the common goals needed for them to work together.
“One of the huge successes for this project is that we managed to get private sector and public sector people from at least five different organisations and from all over our business all working together in a team,” says Ure. “Ultimately it is people who make projects,” she says.
Effective IT breakout: The agility project
The goal of becoming an agile enterprise is a simple one: to align technology with business strategy, thus enabling companies to manage change in a structured and timely manner.
At the Information Age Effective IT 2007 Summit, delegates were asked to define what agility meant to them: ‘process-driven’; ‘dynamic capability’; ‘incredible response to the changing world’; ‘flattening the cost of change’; and ‘part of the continuously evolving organisation’ were just some responses given.
The responses highlight the hopes business leaders are placing on increasing agility. However, most delegates also acknowledged that efforts to become more agile were still in their infancy. As the CIO of a utility computing company argued, ‘it is not possible to have a baby in one month by employing nine women’.
One of the constraining factors highlighted by delegates is the IT architecture: huge investment has gone in to legacy systems which often proves inflexible. Not that this evokes much sympathy from the wider business: workers don’t have the time to wait for the IT department to build a new architecture, and senior management doesn’t want to pay for it.
However some delegates are already seeing the benefits of moving towards a more responsive IT architecture. The IT director at a leading law firm told how virtualisation technology has revolutionised its global systems. Servers, desktops, even some business applications, have been virtualised, so they are controlled from the London headquarters, but can be provisioned at a local level.
Some companies have already taken the initiative, with positive results. Legal firms, for example, are not traditionally regarded as being on the vanguard of change, but one of the delegates at the Effective IT 2007 Summit, an IT Director of an international law firm, has had first-hand experience in adapting the company’s IT infrastructure to suit global business needs.
The centralised IT team, he says, understands the complexities of the company’s global IT requirements. They are able to bundle up applications and dispatch them on CDs via DHL so that remote systems can be up and running half way around the world within three days. The operating system at the remote location simply plugs into a virtualised layer and the remote office is operational within days.
Increased scalability and the utility computing model have helped this firm immensely. The secret, he says, is to approach agility from the business end, not the IT end.
Another delegate from a leading engineering consultancy argued that through virtualisation, companies can replace their legacy systems and therefore automatically modernise their enterprise architectures. This presents a realistic first step for those organisations that wish to become truly agile, he added.