Slide 1

Ian Harris, The Z/Yen Group
Charles Bartlet, Children's Society

[A version of this article originally appeared as "Ready for Takeoff – How to Get Computer Systems Airborne", NGO Finance (November 1998)]

Fly faster, fly higher

There is an adage that a fighter pilot's caring and worried mother always implores her child to "fly lower, fly slower", because she wants her child to be safe.  In fact, the pilot is far safer flying faster and flying higher.  Technology projects often resemble aerial warfare in several ways.  When Z/Yen and The Children's Society started working together on an IT strategy in autumn 1997, The Children's Society were primarily using DOS-based technology (WordPerfect 5.1 for word-processing, Paradox 3.5 databases, Supercalc 5 spreadsheets, Da Vinci for e-mail).  The Children's Society were piloting Windows-based technology, planning a two year project, mostly using upgraded existing machines.  Z/Yen advised that the project looked "low and slow" and that "faster and higher" should be safer and cheaper.  We therefore accelerated the project from two years to six months (three months planning, three months implementation) and agreed to replace old machines with new ones.  The extra cost saving and efficiency benefits which The Children's Society could expect from accelerating the roll-out looked to be significantly greater than the cost of that acceleration.  So it turned out.  The Senior Management Team approved the idea in December 1997 and it was agreed that all users should have the new technology by the end of June 1998.

A sizeable project 

The Children's Society is the UK's fourth largest children's charity with over 1,000 paid staff and thousands of volunteers.  Of these, there are about 700 computerised staff, about 20% of whom operate from a headquarters in London, another 20% or so operate from 12 regional offices and four support centres.  The remainder (at least half the users) operate from 90 to 100 social work projects and units; 40 to 60 individuals operating from home and 30 to 50 mobile workers using portable computers.

The logistics exercise involved in the project, setting up all those users at all those locations, is not trivial.  Each user would need a new machine with new software (Word 97, Access 97, Excel 97, Outlook) on it and would need training in order to use the system.  Many users would need continued, "barely interrupted" access to organisational systems such as accounts and e-mail.  Some users would need access to old local programs in the interim while they learned and/or converted to new programs.  Computer networks at headquarters and the support centres would need upgrading.

Our objectives also included satisfying those users and setting the environment for the real benefits to flow after the equipment and new software were installed.  We established questionnaires to learn users' satisfaction with and attitude to the installation, initial training and follow up training during the project.  Merely "dumping the equipment and running" on the allotted day was not going to win us many brownie points.

Planning and risk management

As part of the initial planning, we assessed the risks inherent in the project.  Figure One shows a risk model for technology projects.  For example, we identified a high risk that we would be unable to ensure consistent supply of equipment for the entire project.  In order to keep ongoing support costs to a minimum, it is important to have a consistent specification of machine.  A flaw in the supply of machines was more likely to throw our timetable into disarray than any other factors in our analysis.  As another example, we identified that the existing in-house resources (primarily a successful bunch of field-based workers known as Information Technology Support Officers or ITSOs) were ideal for the job but not plentiful enough to meet the timetable.  If you recognise risks early and plan around them they are less likely to cause real problems.  The equipment risk proved to be a genuine concern (the computer manufacturer that The Children's Society had been using withdrew from the PC market while we were planning the project) but we avoided the risk by running a mini tendering process for the equipment which placed emphasis on ability to guarantee supply.  In the end we paid a small premium to the chosen supplier, NS Optimum, to guarantee continuity and consistency of supply.  Similarly, we recognised that the ITSO model was a great success at The Children's Society and solved the shortage by seconding people with ITSO-like qualities from the field to act as Assistant ITSOs for the roll-out.  This secondment program proved to be a great success, both in terms of getting the job done and career development for the staff involved.

Implementation - where did those months go?

Looking back on the project, we got loads done in a short space of time and those months just seemed to fly by.  There was the odd hiccup along the way, but at no point did we believe that the project was in serious danger of missing its objectives.

We held regular team meetings to review progress against the project plans and to resolve any issues that cropped up.  Probably the lowest point came just before Easter when the new e-mail system and its new network fileserver computer decided not to play any more.  The e-mail system was down for three working days and all the field sites visited on those days needed a revisit to set up the e-mail service.  However, by the time our next meeting came around, in early May, the team could see the light at the end of the tunnel; most of the project was done.

We needed to keep up the momentum; technology projects often "fizzle without quite finishing", with a long "almost done" tail.  We set our sights on a symbol of completion; the DOS-based Da Vinci e-mail would be decommissioned on 29 June 1998.  The team would have an informal project evaluation meeting (call it what you will) that evening and a formal project evaluation and next steps meeting while nursing our heads the following day.  And that is precisely how it happened.

Evaluation - measuring success

Extensive monitoring by questionnaire was tremendously helpful to the project.  The survey results enabled us to understand the context of the occasional mistake or disappointment; on the whole satisfaction levels were high.  Quite often the less satisfied users would name themselves on their response, enabling the team to follow up and resolve problems.  On one occasion a training course went badly.  It only became obvious on analysis of the questionnaire feedback, because the users were generally satisfied with the project and didn't want to raise the matter specifically with project team members.

The questions on attitude were also illuminating.  Contrary to some "received wisdom" at The Children's Society, people in the field had an equally positive attitude (e.g.  towards the use of technology for childcare, communications and administration) as headquarters people.

Probably the most satisfying evaluation was the feedback from the team itself.  The project has certainly been challenging for we authors.  It was gratifying to learn that almost everyone on the team came away from the experience with a strong, positive feeling about it.

And yes, the project came in on time, on budget.

Lesson's learned

 Lesson learned


Fly faster, fly higher, fly cheaper

·          projects tend to succeed when you generate a sense of urgency, within reason

·          ambitious projects with top level support are more likely to succeed than unambitious, low priority projects

·          cheap can often be dear – (e.g.  the hidden costs of upgrading old computers outweighed the savings)

Plan in detail to manage the risks

·          risks are less daunting when you have planned how to manage them

·          detailed project plans are not useful if unexpected risks send you back to the drawing board

Failure is not an option, but things will go wrong along the way

·          a project of any real size and complexity will have some problems along the way

·          regularly ask yourself the question “does this problematic event or sequence of events make me seriously question whether the main objectives will be achieved or not?”

Measure outcomes as well as outputs

·          as with care work, seek to achieve softer (outcome) targets such as satisfaction as well as harder (output) targets such as “on time, on budget”

·          if the outcomes are hard to measure, try harder

The real benefits are in the use

·          the success of the technology refresh project is only a small part of the story – the real benefits will come in the ensuing projects to use the technology better (e.g.  to provide improved child care services)

Ian Harris is Managing Director of Z/Yen Limited.  Z/Yen specialises in risk/reward management, an innovative approach to improving performance through strategy, systems, people and organisation.  Z/Yen believes that the intelligent management of risk is the basis of significant reward.  Z/Yen clients to date include blue chip companies in banking, insurance, distribution and sales/service companies as well as many charities and other non-governmental organisations. 

Charles Bartlett is IT Manager at The Children's Society.  The Children's Society is one of the UK's leading children's charities.  It works with child runaways, children excluded from school and young people in some of the country's most isolated and deprived communities in more than 90 projects throughout England and Wales.  Contact: Charles Bartlett, The Children's Society, Edward Rudolf House, Margery Street, London, WC1X 0JL, UK.  Telephone: 020-7837-4299.