This article will discuss the relevance of the three Cs (commitment, coordination and communication) when developing and implementing information systems (IS). Empirical research and experience suggest that these three conditions are necessary, at the least, to implement IS successfully. However, the successful application of the three Cs alone will not guarantee a successful information systems project, though it can be concluded that unsuccessful application of the three Cs may lead to possible project failure.
Information system projects can fail for many reasons. Hirschheim (1985), for example, distilled approximately one hundred references into a taxonomy of information systems failures, which is essentially a PEST analysis covering political, economic, social and technological factors.
Bray (1993), reports on: ‘the very public failure of the computerised command and control systems at London Ambulance Service (LAS)’. This failure wasted millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money and ‘allegedly caused twenty people to die after ambulances took up to three hours to answer emergency calls. Almost immediately, LAS’s chief executive resigned and the system was moth-balled.’ The reported reasons for this failure include:
- Political: ‘…the original timescales were too tight… certainly there was pressure to get the system up and working as fast as possible to meet the Government’s performance targets set out in the Patients’ Charter’.
- Economic: ‘…sixteen firms tendered for the contract which was awarded to a small software house, Systems Options, with a (low) bid of around one and a quarter million pounds… they were a small firm with a limited track record’.
- Social: ‘…training was inadequate… road crews got four hours training – if they were lucky!’
- Technological: ‘…the system has lost calls and failed to print calls out …elements of the system, such as a backup file server are still not complete… operators did complain the system was running slowly’.
Bray (1993) also echoes Strassman’s (1985) failure factor that ‘if you automate a mess, all you get is a faster mess’.
Rockart (1979) emphasised critical success factors as ‘the limited number of areas in which results, if they are satisfactory, will ensure successful competitive performance for the organisation.’ In summary, ‘they are the few key areas where things must go right.’ Fortune and Peters (1995) developed a systems approach to learning from failure referring to the nine critical success factors of Pinto and Slevin (1987) for general project implementation, as follows:
- project goals are clearly defined.
- resources are sufficient
- control mechanisms are in place and used
- project has support of top management
- communication channels are adequate
- there is capability for feedback
- contractors are responsive to clients.
- project manager is competent
- project team is competent.
Empirical research and experience suggest there are at least three broad conditions necessary to implement IT successfully:
If any of these ‘three Cs’ are lacking, then the project will probably fail. At best, the cost and timescale will escalate dramatically.
However, these conditions alone are not sufficient to guarantee success. It is possible a technological mistake could still cripple the project. For example, a mega-million dollar space satellite had to be written off because a programmer typed a full stop instead of a comma and inadequate software testing failed to discover this.
Constructing a business case for any investment in information systems is generally concerned with convincing the organisation(s) involved that the investment is worthwhile, normally on commercial grounds. It is generally held to be important that the implications of any investment are clearly understood prior to any such investment being made. Justification for an investment may take many forms.
A simple cost-benefit analysis might involve such techniques as:
- payback period
- net present value
- internal rate of return
- return on capital employed.
Such techniques deal quite well with tangible costs and benefits, either of a one-off or recurring nature. They are much less useful for analysing ‘intangible’ or simply ‘unquantifiable’ costs and benefits.
The difficulty involved in conducting a meaningful cost-benefit analysis for anything other than a well bounded automation project has led to very few projects being formally justified in this way since the 1980s (Griffiths, 1992).
In recent years it has become more common that investments in technology have followed a broad strategic thrust, whereby the formal business strategy drives and informs strategies for information technology, information systems and information management (Earl, 1990).
There are a number of ways in which the business strategy may be linked with the strategies for IM, IS and IT. One common approach is to use the overall business strategy to define the organisation’s ‘information needs’ as the foundation of information, data, and application architectures. Together these help define an appropriate technology architecture.
Another way of using business strategy to drive and inform the IM, IS and IT strategies involves consideration of ‘competitive advantage’. A range of strategies may be employed in order to differentiate a product or service in a competitive market. Generic strategies may be employed to reduce cost, differentiate the product or service offered or to focus on a market niche (Porter, 1980).
For example, many large contemporary organisations are currently pursuing the twin strategies of ‘virtualisation’ and ‘globalisation’ in order to reduce their cost structures and to increase their reach. Information systems and technology can help organisations to break down organisational, geographic and time barriers to promote themselves in a global, instant, twenty-four-hours-a-day electronic marketplace (O’Brien, 2001). In commerce, the electronic world is becoming increasingly dominant over the physical world. The ‘first world’ is an information economy.
In seeking to develop appropriate IT / IS / IM strategies it is common to apply some form of gap analysis to identify the ‘gap’ between ‘where we are’ and ‘where we want to be’. Strategic change is frequently viewed as an attempt to ‘counter the competitive force, solve the problem or close the gap’ (Senn, 1990).
It is in ‘closing the gap’ that the three C’s are of paramount importance.
The Three Cs
Commitment must exist from top management down and across all management levels. It is also important to get all users that are involved or affected by a project to become committed. A factor demonstrating commitment from senior management is the allocation of resources in terms of people, money, time, information and technology. The management team are generally the people who control the financing of projects. Their level of support can dictate the success or failure of any project. A project must be seen as worthwhile and relevant, with substantial benefits to all concerned. It therefore becomes essential that all interested parties be taken on board from the outset. The resources of the users will be necessary in the planning, development, testing and implementation stages of any IS project. Gaining their dedication and joint ownership of the project ensures that they are equally responsible for its eventual success or failure.
Much has been written and said about user involvement / participation in IT projects. However, systems have failed despite generous helpings of user involvement and participation because commitment was lacking. Somebody is committed if:
- They put sufficient resources into the project – their people, money, technology, information and their time. This may mean working over breakfast, lunch, evenings and weekends. If the project needs their resources and if they are committed, then they will find them.
- They put their name on the project. If it fails, they share the blame and punishment and if it succeeds, they share the praise and rewards.
The main reason for many failed projects is the lack of top management commitment – they have to commit themselves and lead from the front. If they do not believe in the project and its benefits, then why should anybody else?
Coordination is a critical element for successful project implementation. A disorganised project will take considerably longer to achieve success, and normally at a greater cost than an organised one will. This increases the likelihood that such a project will never be completed. A disorganised project will have constantly moving targets, which are seldom attained. Coordination through planning and control of all the relevant factors will help to ensure that the right people are doing the right things in the right way, using the right resources at the right time. Coordination, like commitment, needs to take place from the beginning of a project. If control is not gained early, it is very difficult, time consuming and costly to re-gain, if indeed it can be. The important elements, which are going to influence the project need to be identified from the outset. Omission may cause disaster during later stages.
Control is vital to prevent slippage in terms of timescales or budgetary allowances. A key message from Fred Brooks’ The Mythical Man-Month (1993) is that large projects can ‘suddenly’ become one year late by slipping one day at a time. Continued slippages can go unnoticed. All too soon one day’s loss becomes a week’s loss, and thus becomes a month and so on. There are a wide variety of methods and techniques for controlling projects. Many have software support, including: Project Evaluation and Review Techniques (PERT), Gantt charts and Critical Path Analysis (CPA). Constant review of project progress should take place to ensure the early detection of divergence from the plan. Remedies can then be employed to rectify these deviations where appropriate and thus avoid failure or costly problems.
Coordination is an integral part of the ‘going to get there’ (GT)2 phase. (Bakehouse et al 2003). The ‘(GT)2 staircase approach’ is outlined in Figure 1. Each step in the staircase represents a delivered application of IT resources (hardware, software, database, telecommunications etc.). Their ascending sequence often commences with emergency fixes to short-term problems. Necessary infrastructures are then built to support the introduction of information systems in a sequence of decreasing benefits. This is undertaken until they comprise a total, integrated system. Some steps may be climbed simultaneously and there may even be several staircases to ascend. A phased approach helps to focus on ‘the right applications being implemented at the right time and in the right sequence’.
|Figure 1: Climbing the (GT)² Staircase|
The right people must communicate the right information at the right time and in the right media in order to successfully implement an information system. This is especially true when analysing and specifying user requirements. The cost escalation of correcting poor specifications when the system is operational has been estimated as between ten-fold and one hundred-fold, i.e. the penalty for incomplete and incorrect specifications raises costs by at least an order of magnitude. Communication is essential in developing a system for the benefit of all concerned. Through good relationships and communication with all interested parties, obstacles within, among and between them can be avoided in the planning and implementation of an information system. Communication is a two-way issue. Historically, IS personnel have believed they have fostered good communication with users by issuing instructions and information about proposed systems. All stakeholders need to be kept informed and be encouraged to become actively involved throughout the whole process. IS projects often suffer severe communication chain problems between the various people involved. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
When all people concerned communicate perfectly in some common language, semantics remain a key issue. For example, English dictionaries define: White = Pale = Dim = Obscure = Dark = Black. The communication chain involved in IS projects is often long and complex. Users may ask for a white system only for developers to provide a black one.
This article has attempted to highlight the important contribution the ‘three Cs’ can make to the successful development and implementation of information systems. Findings from an array of empirical studies suggest that many senior managers still avoid involvement in major IT / IS projects.
An important lesson learned from the many projects that the authors have been involved in is that the commitment of top management is crucial. The key question they must answer is ‘What are we using technology for?’ One answer is efficiency. Another answer is effectiveness – ‘how can we transform our business?’ Between these two strategies lies a spectrum of balances between efficiency and effectiveness.
The choices to be made cut across organisational boundaries (such as marketing, operations, finance, legal, human resources) and so can only be made by top management. In many of the projects studied, once senior management had decided how ‘to do the right business right’, commitment, coordination and communication were achieved much more easily.