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Frankly sir, we're tired of being on the cutting edge of technology

This guide is designed to help you and your organization make good decisions about when and how to invest in information technology (IT). Put another way, it will help you avoid becoming one of the statistics that dominate reports on information technology investments.

Reports on failure rates range from 50 to 80 percent and sometimes more. Failures don't happen because people aren't smart or trying hard. But failures do happen every day - mostly because people fail to realize and appreciate the complexity of these decisions and the way they affect nearly every other aspect of an organization's work.

Failure is almost inevitable if decisions about IT are hasty, unrealistic, or uninformed. To help you avoid this fate, we lead you through the complex and challenging process of analyzing an information problem or need - and its context. We help you identify, evaluate, and choose possible solutions. And we guide you through the process of building a solid business case for investing in your recommendations.

Everything in this guide is based on years of experience working with dozens of government and nonprofit agencies that needed to improve or change the way they gather and use information. Here at the Center for Technology in Government, we have worked on projects in human services, criminal justice, financial management, and environmental protection, among others.

The agencies we've worked with range in size from enormous federal departments to tiny towns, and everything in between. Their goals focused on a wide variety of functions including case management, direct citizen contacts, research and analysis, general administration, and regulatory affairs. Some had many years of experience in using IT; others were novices.

Regardless of their differences, every project encountered similar basic challenges. Early conceptualizations of their problems were often oversimplified. The influences of their larger organizational and political environments were underestimated. The ways in which current work would have to change were not fully considered. In those cases where new ways of working were considered, estimates of the effort needed to identify how people and processes work now (and how they would have to change) were vastly insufficient. Agencies sometimes hoped that "the right" technology would solve almost any problem.

These challenges that confront every organization do not mean that the people working on them are not focused, skilled, or well versed in their fields. They emerge from highly complex work environments and from unexpected interdependencies among organizations and processes. They require an appreciation for the critical importance of "up front" business and risk analysis.

Too often, the quest for action - purchasing, hiring, designing, and programming - pushes critical knowledge-building activities aside. "Don't you know enough to move forward with an RFP yet?" is a question many of our agency partners have heard after just a few weeks - along with, "We don't have time to study the business problem any more, we need a system in place in six months." In our experience, when the pressure to act exceeds the ability to understand the consequences of action, the risks of failure soar.

The Center for Technology in Government is an applied research program at the University at Albany/SUNY. Established in 1993, the Center works with government to develop information strategies that foster innovation and enhance the quality and coordination of public services. We carry out this mission through applied research and partnership projects that address the policy, management, and technology dimensions of information use in the public sector.

This guide offers our best thinking about how to define an information technology project and make a solid case for needed financial and organizational investments. It has been completed in two parts.

Part One has four chapters and begins by considering the special characteristics of the public sector as an environment for making management decisions and IT choices. In the second chapter, we describe an analytical process that accounts for program goals, stakeholders, processes, costs, and technology alternatives. In chapters three and four, we guide you through the process of turning your analysis into a business case and presenting it to various audiences.

Part Two presents a wide variety of skills, techniques, and tools that can help you through the exercises introduced here. We will also publish a series of case studies that provide practical examples of how these concepts, tools, and techniques were used in some of our projects.

We know that no single formula can guarantee success in developing and implementing a new IT resource. But this guide does offer a well-tested approach to reducing the risk of failure. The first principle is to apply the familiar principle of modern architecture-that form follows function. Accordingly, the initial focus of any IT effort needs to be on the service objectives and underlying business processes of the organization(s) involved, rather than on the technology itself. The best technology will not correct outdated policies, inadequate management practices, or poorly designed workflows.

The second principle is to identify all of the internal and external stakeholders and to understand clearly their different needs, resources, and expectations. Each stakeholder group needs to be taken into account in identifying and considering the costs and benefits of various options.

We also describe some ways to evaluate and choose among an ever-expanding array of technologies, including how to recognize when the best solution is no new technology at all. Finally, we offer some advice about how to use performance measures to evaluate your results.