Big Projects Return

After lying dormant, big projects are making a comeback.

Big projects—remember those? There were the big ERP projects. The big sales force automation projects. The big content management projects. Many of those projects died an expensive death or were put off due to an unpredictable economy. Now, after years of dormancy, the big projects are returning to life.

During the dormant period, many small projects were undertaken, and they provided small returns. Server consolidation projects saved some money. Tuning the network operating system saved some money. Sales force automation projects using hosted systems allowed you to try customer relationship management without a big upfront investment. If you really wanted to save some money, maybe you just got rid of the project altogether by outsourcing the entire IT group and hoping the IT-doesnt-matter theory is correct.

Nowadays, new requirements and opportunities demand that you think big again.

The current set of financial, security and privacy laws calls for businesswide planning and implementation. New systems such as voice over IP work best when the entire company is transformed to the new voice network. The benefits of application integration projects accrue when all the applications are integrated, not just one or two financial or human resources modules.

The monolithic "my way or the highway" enterprise systems are quickly being supplanted by standards-based approaches that allow integration not just across your company but with suppliers and customers as well.

"There is nothing as vulnerable as entrenched success," Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney told a group of journalists last week at the opening of 3Coms Marlboro, Mass., corporate headquarters. Romney was speaking about lessons he had learned as a business consultant prior to his political career, but his comment buttresses a belief in the return of the big projects. All those little cost-cutting projects can help a companys bottom line and its current business processes, but they wont bring the type of business transformation you need to vault to the head of the pack.

"Big projects are coming back for companies with big visions," said futurist Thornton May in an e-mail exchange with me last week. I contacted May because I was curious whether my big-project idea was widespread or the result of running into the goal post at my weekend soccer game. May said that IT plans tying technology to business needs are key to business success, but those plans are often lacking. "Without a map, it is very difficult, some argue impossible, to communicate effectively about a complex and multifaceted subject such as information technology," May said.

During a recent dinner in New York hosted by Blue Titan Software, I had a chance to ask the infrastructure architect for a Fortune 500 life sciences company (he didnt want to be identified by name in print) why the time is right for big projects. He said there are two reasons. First, big advances that produce millions or billions of dollars in revenue (such as a method for getting new drugs to market faster) come only from big projects. Second, projects such as service-oriented architectures, where standards are supreme, put control back in the users—rather than the vendors—hands.

"For the first time, users can tell vendors to figure out how to operate in a service-oriented world, or we, the users, will go elsewhere," the infrastructure architect said. That freedom of choice for even the largest projects is a huge change from the proprietary lock-ins of the past.

The business of big projects requires far more commitment than little wins. The technologists have to come to the table willing to speak English rather than in acronyms and be prepared to delve into new technologies with which they are not yet familiar. The business managers have to come to the table willing to map out business processes and procedures that have probably grown up without a whole lot of strategic forethought. This time around, the benefits from those big projects are worth the time, energy and money required.

Editor in Chief Eric Lundquist can be reached at