The possibility that the FBI may have to scrap its $170 million Virtual Case File software program was described by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in one report as a "train disaster in slow motion."
While big projects can fail in a spectacular manner, the same is often true for smaller corporate projects: for instance, the unused CRM system or the "integrated" inventory and manufacturing systems unable to talk to each other.
Youd think the government and the corporate world would be getting better at improving the success rate for software projects, but that does not seem to be the case. Why is that?
"The first question that comes to my mind when asked why software projects fail is, Why is common sense always the first thing to drop off the face of the earth in software projects?" said Michael Krigsman, CEO of Asuret, a consultancy aimed at improving software implementations and reducing the risks associated with those projects.
Krigsman said failure of software projects has far less to do with insurmountable technology hurdles than with common business issues that should be addressed but often arent before projects get under way.
"Does executive management support the project? Has that management committed sufficient resources in executive time and budget dollars to make the project a success? Is there a project management process in place? Has there been a business case made for the project? Is there an ROI analysis for the project? Have the project managers sat down with users and discussed the project?" Krigsman said, when asked what common-sense issues should be discussed.
When I asked one executive who has knowledge of government technology projects and procurement why the FBIs Virtual Case File has apparently flopped, he didnt want to respond on the record, although he did comment that the factors that ensure "successful projects are the same today as they were when I started my career in this field."
That career has spanned several decades, and, while the technology has changed considerably, he said the "same basics around project management and managing the human dimension with its expectations have not changed."
If the basics of managing technology projects have remained the same, youd think that the number of successful projects is increasing. The technology choices are simpler than in the past. Instead of many networking protocols and software platforms, youre building your project on Internet-based networks using standards-based platforms.
The hardware has continued to become less expensive, more reliable and more network-friendly. Your options among in-house development, well-qualified local talent or offshore developers are more plentiful and affordable than in the past.
Despite such advances, in speaking with experts for this column, it seems the number of failing technology projects is as great as ever.
I dont know the details of the Virtual Case File projects problems, but I bet I can take a good guess: too much turnover at the top management levels, too many promises of what the software would be capable of doing and too little contact with the people who would use the software on a day-to-day basis.
Whether it be a high-profile government project or a sales force automation tool, not starting with the user in mind is one basic mistake sure to sink any project. A project that is on time, on budget and unused is still a failure. As Krigsman told me, "Running a project without reference to end users is insane and a prescription for failure."
Despite the gloom surrounding the track record of these technology projects, there are some signs of hope. For instance, the demands of regulatory compliance, ITIL (IT Infrastructure Library) and no-failure tolerance are providing IT governance products a role in technology projects from the start. "If key project dates and tasks are not being met, our products can drive a set of escalation alerts" to provide an early-warning system, said Christopher Lochhead, chief marketing officer for Mercury Interactive.
Editor in Chief Eric Lundquist can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.