I'm in a quite similar situtation, and perhaps I can provide a few hints from what we're currently doing.
I'm working for a relatively well-known institute in academia (biotech field), with a group that among other research projects, also provides web-based services to the research community. Funding is partially tied to the operation of the services, so there is actually enough pressure to make sure that they work and work correctly at all times.
Still, until about a year ago, development was very ad-hoc, in a mix of languages, and with many "islands of knowledge", where some parts of the system were only known to one post-doc, and other parts could only be fixed by the group head (who, as they are, was usually busy with many other things...). After some hard times and near-misses, we started looking around for ways to improve our development.
I was quite attracted by the ideas of Agile, and I believe that they're a good fit to the kind of processes you find in science, as well as in software engineering. We initially had a professional Scrum coach come in and talk with us about software development practices, and then decided to apply Scrum to our processes.
It's now a bit more than 1 year since then, we're still using Scrum with a few adaptations to fit the academic environment (we're also using Scrum for projects that are really science and research, not software development). In a recent secret poll among the team, Scrum got high marks for making the team more productive, and for creating an environment where code and knowledge is shared. People are happy with the structure that Scrum provides, and we always know where the project stands. Incidentally, we also write better software faster.
But we're still improving the way we work. The transition is slow and painful, and we're only slowly adopting things such as test-driven development, automated builds and pair programming. In my experience, there's a lot of resistance against these "newfangled" methods in the academic culture, especially that of people who weren't trained as software engineers, but rather as physicists, chemists, biologists, but now find themselves producing software.
Some hints on what I've found useful in re-shaping our work environment:
- You can't change the whole structure in one day. Get permission to run a small, isolated project in "the new way", and use this to demonstrate the advantages. Remember, there are many metrics for success: Code quality, timely delivery, not having single points (persons) of failure, as well as team velocity and personal satisfaction. Try to make a case from this small project (and gain experience while doing so), and then grow it out slowly.
- I would not advise to do some clever "breaking the build, and thus showing everybody how fragile the system is" exercise. This may not be seen as constructive.
- Instead, provide convincing evidence by example that your way is more productive and more certain. Bugs that are fixed stay fixed, and don't creep in later again. Timelines are better kept. That sort of thing...
- If you can get someone in to talk about the current best thinking in software development, do so (someone else mentioned this already). It's good to hear an outside opinion, and to understand that these practices are not theoretical but used by large companies world-wide.
- I found Joel Spolsky's 12-point assessment very useful to find out where your organization stands: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000043.html ... These are also good points to whisper into management's ears.