22 May State IT failures are not inevitable
Madison, Wis. – Are state government information technology consolidation projects bound to be expensive, problematic, and time-consuming?
Matt Miszewski, the CIO for the State of Wisconsin, has indicated the problems Wisconsin is having with IT consolidation are not unusual for large state projects. He has plenty of support on that point, especially from other government CIOs, but are cost overruns, implementation delays, and outright failures really inevitable?
Christopher Baum, a research vice president for Gartner, Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based information technology and research analysis firm, recently provided an outside perspective on state government IT consolidation. Baum is a big believer that little in life is inevitable, but he also knows there are a lot of factors working against such large-scale projects. He said most state government projects run into trouble for six reasons:
Complicated governance models that feature competing factions and different sets of expectations and motivations. “It’s very seldom that you have vision alignment for this kind of project,” he noted.
Unrealistic expectations, especially when projects are oversold – and most, but not all, are oversold.
Political friction, which Baum called “the nature of the beast.” Even when Republicans and Democrats agree on the need for IT consolidation, there will be friction and finger pointing.
Funding issues. Not necessarily a lack of funding, but poorly applied funding. Baum said governments traditionally fund projects in individual agencies. When they try implement change across agencies, as is the case with IT consolidation, they can run into trouble. Sometimes, compliance issues become overwhelming.
The lack of independent verification and validation, especially when working with systems integrators. “You need an independent overseer,” Baum stated. “Sometimes, you need people who don’t have an emotional attachment.”
Appointing the wrong IT management team. On occasion, Baum said, the responsibility simply is given to the wrong people, either someone who is politically connected or who has the wrong motivation.
Courting the ideal
Ideally, IT consolidation is supposed to bring cost savings, secure infrastructure, and improved information sharing and data integration. Gov. Jim Doyle hired Miszewski as the state’s CIO in 2003 to bring greater efficiency to the state’s information technology enterprise, and he certainly expected some bumps and detours along the way. But given the expensive snags that some large-scale IT projects have encountered, some believe promised savings – a moving target now pegged at $9 million annually – will never materialize.
The latest shoe to drop is the University of Wisconsin System’s likely jettisoning of new payroll software after spending a cool $26 million on the project, which has led to calls for more effective legislative oversight of state IT contracts. Prior to that, the cost overruns and implementation delays that have frustrated large IT projects in several state agencies already had cost millions of taxpayer dollars, prompting the Joint Legislative Audit Committee to authorize an audit into IT purchases.
Baum said a lot of wasteful spending could be eliminated by a willingness to kill projects if they are out of alignment at an early, pre-determined milestone juncture. The “deep-six/kill” mechanism means that money will be lost, but it also means that losses will be cut. “It’s hard to lose $170,000 on a project,” Baum acknowledged, but that’s better than losing even more money because nobody has the will to apply the brakes to failed projects.
“Unfortunately, this is looked at as a failure,” Baum added, when it actually could be, or lead to, a success.
In a recent national assessment of state IT consolidation, the National Association of State CIOs surveyed state government CIOs regarding their consolidation and shared services initiatives. Eighty percent identified workforce resistance to change as an obstacle or challenge to their consolidation effort, but Baum said change isn’t the issue.
“The conventional wisdom is that people resist change,” he said. “That’s wrong. People resist loss.”
To illustrate, he said few if any would resist receiving $1 million tax-free, which is a change, but they would resist being held up at gunpoint, which involves a loss. Thanks in part to what Baum called “improper visioning,” they also may resist the loss of a given technology that has allowed them to perform their jobs well and forge a successful career in the process.
“Typically, as a best practice, change management or acceptance training should be part of any major project,” he said.
Meanwhile, Miszewski plows ahead with IT consolidation, predicting that complete agency migration will occur by July of 2007 “unless something changes.” Many in Wisconsin lay the state’s problems at the feet of Miszewski, a 1995 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School who started his own IT consulting company, Topical Networks, and also focused on labor law in private practice. One year ago, he was hailed by Government Technology magazine as one of its 25 “Doers, Dreamers, and Drivers.” Today, some state employees characterize Miszewski as arrogant, egotistical, and inexperienced.
Few would deny that state CIOs face a unique set of challenges, but some believe Miszewski’s approach has made matters worse. “He wants to be able to make everything happen, but he doesn’t have the experience to make a good judgment on whether it’s realistic or not,” said one state employee who did not want to be identified. “He loves an audience. He loves to get up and talk about things that have happened in the past tenses that haven’t even begun yet. It’s just a combination of someone who did not have the experience to make key decisions in a project, any project this large.”
Baum believes a number of management styles can be successful, depending on the project and the stage of a project. He said there are times when it’s appropriate to bring in someone who is going make a change at any cost, just as there are stages in the life cycle of a project where consensus building is required. “I think a lot of projects fail because managers have only one management style,” he stated.
Miszewski, meanwhile, believes it’s his job to overcome cultural resistance, and he prefers to build bridges. “I certainly have some large-scale challenges, and there are two things you need to do to make those things happen,” he said. “One is to try to build as many bridges as you can to make sure that folks understand the vision that you’re driving for, to try to get as much buy-in as you can in that process, and work directly with your customer base to make that happen.
“And when all else fails, you need to lead, and there have been occasions where I have needed to lead the enterprise, and I don’t shy away from that.”
Miszewski now believes the state has a firmer grasp on what he agrees is an ambitious project. “Certainly, when you’re starting to build the project, you don’t know all the intricacies that you find out as the project moves on,” he said. “So, certainly, the complexity was more than we anticipated when we started, but now we think we’ve got a pretty good handle on it.”
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