John Simcock: How to stop your technology projects going wrong

The government was once criticised for its delayed, cancelled and compromised IT projects, but recently there have been some good examples that charities could learn from, says the charity IT expert

John Simcock
John Simcock

Recent research among over 100 charity decision-makers, commissioned by Eduserv, shows that the charity sector in 2015 will significantly ramp up the level of investment it makes in technology to deliver better services for beneficiaries and improved support for volunteers.

This investment is critical to the future viability of charities. Charities need not only to be able to reach people in a digitally-driven, multi-channel world, but also to exploit the savings, efficiency and improved productivity that technology offers in order to make their resources go further. It is, of course, also vital that the projects are delivered on time, on budget and - most importantly - that they meet the needs of service users.

The problem is that technology projects have a notorious habit of going wrong. You only have to look at the maulings that central government departments have received over transformational IT initiatives which have been delayed, cancelled or compromised for evidence of this.

Yet with six in ten charity leaders planning to invest in IT for better services in the next 12 months, it is precisely towards central government that the charity sector should be looking - not so much to learn from mistakes, but to understand how, in the past few years, the Government Digital Service has learnt to deliver big projects on time and largely without service disruption.

The GDS team has written extensively on its blog about how it has re-engineered its approach in the past few years but here are six principles which I think are among the most important to charities as they approach technology projects.

- Put simplicity at the heart of what you do

Big ideas about the future of services are worth nothing if they cannot be delivered. That’s why the starting point for the government’s approach to digital transformation has been deliverability, and therefore simplicity. Cutting out complexity has stopped projects from over-reaching and was at the heart of the launch of as a single portal for all government.

- Design services around what users need

This should be the starting point for all new service design. This isn’t just the case in the design phase, when a combination of data and insight is used to shape the design of a new service before it is rolled out. It is also key to the launch phase, when early - or "beta" - versions of these services allow users and development teams to understand the changes which need to be made in order to create something which is genuinely superior to what went before.

- Start small and build

A big-bang delivery of a highly engineered service is not always the best aim. It is better to start small by creating a basic service which can effectively replace and improve another existing one, then building on it. Old services should be kept running in parallel and adoption of new ones should be led by user demand and service-readiness, rather than an arbitrary target date and big switch-off. This approach increases the speed at which new services are created, and decreases the risk of obsolescence on launch.

- It’s not just about technology.

The delivery of digital services is enabled by IT, but the focus for every organisation must be on fundamental service redesign, and not just on the digital bits. Reducing costs, driving efficiency and improving services will not come from simply digitising the processes your organisation relied on in the past.

- Your organisation has to change too

Digital services require different skills to design, manage and deliver them. The success of your organisation’s digital transformation will rely on reorganising your staff and improving their skills so that they can support the future shape of service delivery in your organisation. This will involve bringing project management and IT skills in roles which may not have required them before.

It's not about one-off projects

A vital final point is that investment in IT and digital capability is no longer about one-off projects with a start and end point. Successful digital services require the ability to deliver continuous improvement and change. This may take some getting used to, but adapting organisations to deliver services in this environment is critical for the future.

John Simcock is director of charity and third sector at Eduserv, a not-for-profit
provider of IT services

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