The Big Disconnect

More than half of organizations report that IT initiatives fail to meet expectations. Here's how to improve your success rate.

Every new IT initiative has its challenges. But in today’s high-pressure, results-oriented world, the gap between expectations and outcomes has never been greater. According to several studies, more than 50 percent of organizations report that IT initiatives fail to live up to expectations. Technology limitations, lack of funding, political issues, personnel issues, resistance from one or more stakeholders and the shortage of trained staff to implement a project can undermine even the best laid plans.

Moreover, state and local governments don’t have the luxury of deficit spending, and they lack many of the other resources federal agencies and private sector companies have available to them. As a result, these agencies are unable to be proactive.

“Many government agencies wind up in a reactive mode,” says James Krouse, director of public sector market analysis at INPUT, a Reston, Va., firm that specializes in government IT consulting. “The results don’t match the expectations.”

Most projects are gauged by how outcomes measure up to objectives. It sounds simple, but, as performance pressures increase and IT grows more complex, more than a few state and local agencies are feeling the heat of projects gone astray.

Yet, amid the turmoil, some state and local governments are finding ways to succeed. They’re developing focused strategies and sound business-case plans that help them achieve best-practice results.


Balancing an array of competing interests is unavoidable in government. Yet one of the biggest problems, Krouse says, is that in a corporate environment decisions come from the top and company policies clearly spell out the scope and structure of an initiative. By contrast, state and local entities must interact — and cooperate — not only with other agencies but also the public. “They must share information, follow technology edicts laid down by the state or other agencies, and deal with political and turf issues,” Krouse says.

Many agencies underestimate the complexity and scope of projects or overestimate the ability of technology to solve problems. When agencies lack a business case and a clear vision of what they’re trying to achieve, their initiatives frequently stall out or fall short of expectations.

“There’s [typically] no mechanism for making sure that business processes stay on track,” says John Kost, managing vice president of government research at Gartner, based in Stamford, Conn. Poor planning also translates into a lack of flexibility and scalability as conditions and needs change.

Unfortunately, IT managers often fail when it comes to communicating expectations and helping an agency’s business leadership understand the cultural changes that need to take place. “Failure rates spike when there’s a lack of understanding or a lack of commitment to change,” Kost says. “The conversation cannot focus on bits, bauds and bytes. It has to be about business value. It’s up to IT to understand the language of business and communicate what a project is all about.”

Some agencies have learned that a clear plan and good communication can pay dividends. At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the focus is on up-front planning, strong collaboration among departments and outside firms, and careful execution of the business case, says Lance Lyttle, CIO for Atlanta’s Department of Aviation. With an IT staff of only 30 and more than 85 million passengers a year passing through 5.8 million square feet of airport space, it’s essential to achieve maximum results. What’s more, the airport must fund some projects internally using its own revenue.

Four years ago, the airport launched a major technology upgrade. The first step was to build telecommunications rooms, raceways, cable trays, conduits and a fiber backbone extending across the entire facility. On top of that, the airport planned to build a distributed antenna system (DAS) capable of providing seamless cellular voice coverage throughout the airport, a Wi-Fi network, a parking and revenue control system, and a security access control system. It also needed a network operations center along with remote monitoring and diagnostics capabilities so that it could efficiently manage the entire IT infrastructure.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport first analyzed financial and operational justifications such as net present value, internal rate of return and return on investment. “All the calculations turned out positive,” Lyttle explains. The airport then started a dialog with cellular companies, Wi-Fi service providers, tenants and others — including a discussion about who would pay for what. “We decided that collaboration was essential,” he adds. “The only way we could succeed was to receive input and cooperation from major stakeholders.”

The airport held weekly meetings that covered design, engineering and practical concerns. “Not all the meetings went smoothly,” Lyttle says. “With both small and large service providers, we had numerous disagreements — and we had our own technical and legal issues to address.”

Eventually, Hartsfield-Jackson airport forged agreements and adopted a detailed master plan. During the next year, it built the fiber backbone and then spent about six months installing the Wi-Fi network. Finally, it installed the distributed antenna system during a five-month span — using airport funds, some of which were later reimbursed by several cellular providers.

The result? The DAS system, which received a best practice award from the Center for Digital Government, based in Folsom, Calif., includes more than 700 antennas and covers more than 99.9 percent of the airport, including concourses and an underground transportation mall, which houses the light rail system that runs between the terminal and six concourses. On any given day, more than 100,000 travelers and 55,000 employees use the system. Meanwhile, the Wi-Fi, parking and security access control initiatives are all boosting efficiency, slashing costs and helping the airport gain a reputation as a leading-edge facility.


Gartner’s Kost believes too many government organizations fail to take into account total cost of ownership when mapping out an IT project. “They’re focused on vendor price, which is a small component of the overall system expense,” Kost says.

Developing templates and a solid business case for a project can go a long way toward ensuring success. Factoring in the cost of internal staff resources, asset management, bandwidth and the expense of a help desk, among other things, is essential. Those who fail to measure such factors often find themselves under-funded and under-staffed.

Satisfying political leaders and high-level administrators is all about managing expectations, according to Kost. “It’s crucial to ensure that a project is aligned with the practical and political needs of the leadership,” he says. “An IT organization must be able to explain why the project is important and what it does in nontechnical terms.”

It’s also important for a CIO to understand how various agencies interact and how a project lays out across departments or agencies. “Too often, there’s a silo-based approach, and it’s reinforced by the entire budgeting process,” Kost says.

One local government that has steered clear of problems is Monterey, Calif. A combination of vision and collaboration has helped the city achieve maximum results with a limited budget and tight resources. The town of approximately 30,000 residents has constructed a fiber network that connects offices, public buildings, traffic signals and schools. Now, by using wireless technology built atop the fiber infrastructure, it is planning to link emergency vehicles, city workers in the field, and even parks and baseball fields.

The initiative began in 1998. That’s when Monterey began to study how it could establish a communications infrastructure to meet the needs of the emerging digital age. The city immediately developed a detailed business case and began exploring ways to fund development. The result? During franchising negotiations with a cable operator, the city negotiated a way to piggyback off of a fiber network that the company was constructing to replace an old coaxial system. The city negotiated a deal that allowed it to pay only the project’s incremental costs.

Today, the fiber network extends to about 65 sites, including the civic center, library, fire stations, recreation centers and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The wireless cloud will eventually spread over the downtown core, the waterfront area and other neighborhoods. At present, the city has six access points in place, and it is continuing to expand the network. “Our mantra is to get information from where it exists to where it needs to go,” says Fred Cohn, Monterey’s assistant city manager.

It is important for government agencies to look for partnership opportunities while embracing innovation and creativity, Cohn says, adding that some up-front vision and planning can go a long way toward maximizing resources — and results. However, he says, “It’s important to have the business fundamentals in place and have the business knowledge and technical acumen to achieve success. Obstacles always exist, but there are often ways around them.”

Five Tips for Overcoming the Technology Disconnect

1. Develop a business case. Without a detailed road map — including the justification for a project, the cost and return on investment — it’s all guesswork. The key to staying on track, receiving funding, staying on budget and achieving results is to document all aspects of the project up front.

2. Collaborate and communicate. Many breakdowns occur because various constituencies — politicians, other agencies, private sector firms, the public and employees — are left out of the loop. Understand the various needs, desires and ideas involved, and you’re likely to deliver more targeted results.

3. Keep political decision-makers informed. When politicians and business decision-makers don’t understand a project or sense that a problem exists, things can come apart at the seams — and funding can dry up. Learn to speak in business terms and communicate the value of a project.

4. Understand technology limitations and total cost of ownership. All too often, IT professionals obsess over features and forget how technology must meld with business processes. It’s also essential to keep an eye on the big picture and build a foundation that supports growth and change. Also, pay attention to total cost of ownership rather than the outlay for hardware and software.

5. Provide training for IT staff and employees. In today’s tight budget environment, it’s tempting to slash costs by trimming training and development. Unfortunately, this approach is likely to backfire. Some projects fail simply because employees lack the skills and ability to use the technology effectively.

Why Projects Derail

Some of the leading causes of IT project failure include:

• Lack of executive support
• Inadequate input from constituencies and users
• Insufficient information provided to executive leadership
• Lack of an experienced project manager and/or leadership
• Poorly defined business objectives
• Loosely defined scope
• Lack of standards within the IT environment
• Lack of a formal methodology
• Unreliable estimates and poorly defined cost structure
• Too much emphasis on technology rather than improving business processes and boosting value.

Oct 31 2006