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Prof. Albert Boonstra: ‘Large-scale IT projects doomed to failure’

24 May 2011

IT megaprojects such as road pricing and electronic medical records are doomed to failure from the outset, because the many problems associated with them – cost, length of time and the conflicting interests of those concerned, for instance – are wildly underestimated. Government and industry should not therefore set their sights on megaprojects of this kind; at most they could be targets to work towards organically. This is the message that Albert Boonstra, Professor of Information Management at the University of Groningen, will put across today in his inaugural lecture on innovative information technology.

Albert Boonstra
Albert Boonstra

Large-scale IT projects that run into the sand cost society about 6 billion euros a year according to the Netherlands Court of Audit – almost one third of the total investment in IT (18,5 billion euros, see footnote 1). ‘And then we’re only talking about the failure of projects that were eventually abandoned completely. By that yardstick the public transport chip card was successful, as it was actually introduced despite all the complications, albeit on a much smaller scale than was originally envisaged’, says Boonstra.

Seduced by technology

In the professor’s opinion things already start going wrong when a colossal project of this kind is being thought up. The electronic medical records project, which was finally put out of its misery by the Senate after fourteen years of torture, is a horrific example. Boonstra comments: ‘The people who think up a plan of this kind are seduced by the technological possibilities that exist at the time, with the result that right from the start the focus is on the technology, as well as on the strategic economic goals that could be achieved using it – better health care in this case. What is considered far too late is the organizational angle: how do you tailor the project to the needs of all concerned, especially the users?’

The time factor

It is because of the time factor that by the end of the journey both the situation and the technology have changed completely, compared with those at the start of the project. Take the case of electronic medical records: the technology has moved on so far after fourteen years of political bickering that a simple chip card in a patient’s inside pocket, for example, would now meet the targets originally set for the project. ‘But this kind of project turns into a sort of snowball because of the enthusiasm of its authors. It gets bigger and bigger and becomes unstoppable’, says Boonstra. Until, that is, the snowball runs up against the wall of hard reality – empty coffers, or political and social opposition.

Industry at error too

Failed government projects attract a lot of attention, but Boonstra is aware that industry too puts billions of euros a year into failed IT projects, management systems and other IT investment aimed at innovation. ‘Companies don’t like to broadcast the fact, but we do know, for instance, about a resource planning system at Nestlé that never made it to the finish line – quite simply because it was completely out of line with the corporate culture.’ The mistake is made, according to Boonstra, both by software suppliers who incorrectly claim they are offering a ‘total solution’ and by customers who are only too keen to believe it.

Grand Plan

As far as Boonstra is concerned, projects such as road pricing – but also the far less well-publicized electronic prescription system for GPs – are on such a large scale that they can never work out. He advises taking a different route. ‘At present it all starts with a Grand Plan. But if a project is set up piecemeal and allowed to develop organically – for example by starting on a regional basis, or with patients already in a hospital – it will grow of its own accord and there will be far less resistance. If you want to innovate using information technology you need to take care not to fall into the trap presented by remote technological and strategic vistas, to put it in a nutshell. You need to consider the organizational angle first. You start by consulting the users; the technology should not need to be introduced until the final stage. If a project is going to take more than four years the uncertainties are so large that you shouldn’t really set your sights on it.’

1) According to a report of the Netherlands Court of Audit (2007, de Algemene Rekenkamer) l arge-scale IT projects that run into the sand cost society about 6 billion euros.

Curriculum Vitae

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Prof. Albert Boonstra (…., 1959) is Professor of Information Management and Director of the Business Administration MSc programme at the Faculty of Economics and Business. His research focuses particularly on the relationship between IT, organizations and people. He is to deliver his inaugural lecture on Innovating with Information Technology: a Two-Edged Sword on Tuesday 24 May at 4.15 p.m. at the Academy Building, Broerstraat 5, Groningen.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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