New Skills for Design, Analysis and Implementation of IT projects

Of all invested capital in the U.S. between 1980 and 2011, information technology (IT) defined as hardware, software and communications equipment, grew from 32% to 52% (source U.S. Department of Commerce, 2012). However IT need to be designed, analyzed and implemented before there can be an ROI for the organization. It is there that things often go wrong.  On average investments in IT can produce returns far above those by other investments. However there is considerable variance across firms (Brynjolfsson et al. 2000). The reasons are the lack of investments in organizational and managerial capital, sometimes called complementary assets. We focus here on one particular complementary asset: the right skills or capabilities for design, analysis and implementation of IT projects. The literature on failed IT projects is abundant. IT failures can be not capturing essential business requirements, not providing organizational benefits, delivering a complicated, poorly organized user interface or inaccurate and inconsistent data. A large part of IT projects are runaway projects, exceeding schedule and/or budget and fail to perform as specified.

Practitioners as well as academics are desperately searching for new and better methods to gain more control over IT projects. Their strive for more control can be placed in a view of information systems (IS) as cybernetic systems. They see an information system mainly as a machine taking inputs like raw data from within the organization or from the environment. The inputs are then processed into meaningful information or knowledge. Finally the outputs transfers the processed information or knowledge to the people who will (hopefully) use it or to another process for which it will be used. This approach is entirely in line with a very mechanical perspective on IS and is the driver for skills typically found in an engineering education. There is surely nothing wrong with that. Indeed, IS deal with a highly complex technological artifacts. So more and especially deeper skills in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields are certainly most welcome.

However information systems are more than computers. Designing, analyzing and implementing information systems effectively requires an understanding of the organization, the management and information technology shaping information systems. It was K. Weick who stated already that computers will defeat their own purpose because they create complexity (Weick 1985).

I argue that we should also adopt a more behavioral approach to IS. For instance phenomenon’s as IT projects failures cannot always be understood with the models used in a solely (cyber)-technical approach. Other behavioral disciplines should contribute to the methods and models. We refer to psychology (e.g. how do users really deal with IS?), sociology (e.g. how do IS shape organizations?) and economy (e.g. how do we evaluate IS?) as behavioral disciplines.  The behavioral approach of IS is certainly not new for IS researchers, but there is still a lack of more behavioral skills within the community of IT practitioners.  And the research for a deeper understanding of IS and especially IT projects goes on. I like to bring some researched topics that may lead to paradigm shifts in the education of IT/IS professional.

In the domain of organizational science there is research on High Reliability Organization (HRO). A topics that was initiated by K. Weick in 1999 (Weick et al. 1999).  In his seminal article, Organizing for High Reliability: Processes of Collective Mindfulness, Weick argues that in an HRO there is preoccupation with failure (“Failure is not an option”), reluctance to simplify interpretation (beware of ‘frameworks’, ‘models’, ‘mindsets’, …), sensitivity to operations (“situational awareness”) and commitment to resilience (“continuous management of fluctuations”). Lessons we can learn from HROs are:

          – The expectation of surprise is an organizational resource because it promotes attentiveness and discovery.

          – Anomalous events should be treated as outcomes rather than as accidents, to encourage search for sources and causes.

          – Errors should be made as conspicuous as possible to undermine self-deception and concealment.

          – Reliability requires diversity, duplication, overlap, and a varied response repertoire, whereas efficiency requires homogeneity, specialization, non-redundancy and standardization (bricolage?)

          – Interpersonal skills are just as important in HROs as are technical skills.

Another topic in IS research are Real Options Pricing Models (ROPMs) which could be suitable for large IT infrastructure investments where future revenue streams are unclear (unsuccessful?). RO means invest now – harvest later (Benaroch 2002). So an initial expenditure on IT/IS creates the right, but not the obligation to obtain the benefits associated with further development. The management has the freedom to cancel, defer, restart, or expand IT projects.

Very recently IS researchers are now working with the sociomateriality of IS (Orlikowski et al. 2008). This is a relational view of organizations and IS as sociomaterial arrangements of human and non-human actors. It assumes inherently inseparable sociality and materiality of IS by which IS enactments can create different kind of realities in practice (e.g. Why is one ERP implementation successful and why is another one considered as a failure?).

Some more shattered toughs on IT/IS projects that could inspire educators, technical colleges and universities to aim for new skills:

          – Traditional IT/IS project management techniques do not guaranteed success nor eliminates failures (IS success models)

          – IT/IS project management is too much focused on ‘how-to-do’

          – We should start to think about a management of meaning instead of management of control (Weick et al. 2005)

          – We should adopt a critical perspective on IT/IS projects: focus on values (technology is not neutral), ethics and morality equally important than efficiency & effectiveness. (e.g. trust versus control (Devos et al. 2009)

jan devos


Benaroch, M. 2002. “Managing information technology investment risk: A real options perspective,” Journal of Management Information Systems (19:2) Fal, pp 43-84.

Brynjolfsson, E., and Hitt, L. M. 2000. “Beyond computation: Information technology, organizational transformation and business performance,” Journal of Economic Perspectives (14:4) Fal, pp 23-48.

Devos, J., Van Landeghem, H., and Deschoolmeester, D. 2009. “IT Governance in SMEs: Trust or Control?,” in Information Systems – Creativity and Innovation in Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises, G. Dhillon, B. C. Stahl and R. Baskerville (eds.), pp. 135-149.

Orlikowski, W. J., and Scott, S. V. 2008. “Sociomateriality: Challenging the Separation of Technology, Work and Organization,” Academy of Management Annals (2) 2008, pp 433-474.

Weick, K. E. 1985. “COSMOS VS CHAOS – SENSE AND NONSENSE IN ELECTRONIC CONTEXTS,” Organizational Dynamics (14:2) 1985, pp 50-64.

Weick, K. E., Sutcliffe, K. M., and Obstfeld, D. 1999. “Organizing for high reliability: Processes of collective mindfulness,” in Research in Organizational Behavior, Vol. 21, 1999, pp. 81-123.

Weick, K. E., Sutcliffe, K. M., and Obstfeld, D. 2005. “Organizing and the process of sensemaking,” Organization Science (16:4) Jul-Aug, pp 409-421.

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