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When good projects turn bad

THE cost of software project failures to business is estimated to run into many billions of dollars each year.

However, while the exact figure can only be estimated, studies in both Australia and the US have identified key areas that influence the success or failure of software projects.

Further, as pressures increase to make the information technology industry more accountable for the outcome of major projects, IT project auditing is emerging as a growth area for businesses skilled in software project management.

Beacon Technology is one such firm that is finding cleaning up a ‘project gone wrong’ is a lucrative area of the market.

Beacon Technology director Glen Hunter said effective project management and due process was the key to avoiding project blow-outs.

“Quite often what makes a project blow out is programmers or technical staff implementing changes without due process,” he said.

Mr Hunter said Beacon had recently been appointed to audit a project that had become significantly larger over time due to evolving user requirements.

“It just highlights the importance of having a good set of procedures and the need to incorporate changes over the life of projects – especially over a large project that may last several years,” he said.

According to US-based research firm The Standish Group, in 1995 the cost of failed projects in the US was estimated at $US81 billion. Overruns cost a further $US59 billion.

The fact that more up-to-date figures are difficult to find is quite telling – with most companies that have had a major software project blow-out understandably reluctant to publicise the details.

So what causes these, often enormous, project blow-outs?

Coley Consulting Group in the US has identified a lack of user involvement; long or unrealistic time scales; poor or no requirements; scope creep; lack of a change control system; and poor software or system testing as key reasons for software project failure.

Mr Hunter said studies had shown that more than 95 per cent of successful projects had an experienced project manager at the helm and that user involvement throughout the life of a project was crucial.

He said employing a formal software methodology, with a phased and interactive approach to cater for changing business requirements, would allow for early stakeholder input and avoid costly and unanticipated changes later on.

Breaking a project into manageable chunks would minimise long or unrealistic time frames, while tightly controlling project segments would reduce risk and avoid cost blow-outs and poor quality work.

Ensuring all projects were run with an experienced project manager at the helm, and employing proven software technology and infrastructure, would minimise technical risk, Mr Hunter said.

Ongoing review and assessment of the project would smooth the way for the incorporation of changing user requirements, Mr Hunter said, and would also provide invaluable knowledge to be applied for future projects.

Finally, employing a formal software testing methodology during the development of the software or system, which involves end users, would ensure “robust and reliable results”.

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