|Why New Systems Fail: Theory and Practice Collide|
|reviewer||Bruce F. Webster|
|summary||Risks and pitfalls of enterprise COTS projects|
Simon's book is far more informative and instructive than a Google search and should be required reading for all CIOs, IT project managers, and involved business managers prior to starting any such enterprise COTS project. He covers the complete lifecycle of such projects, starting with the typical expectations by upper management ("Fantasy World") and following it through system selection, implementation, and production, along with a final section on how to maximize the chances of success. Along the way, he uses several real-word case studies (with names changed), as well as a few hypothetical ones, to demonstrate just how such efforts go wrong.
What Simon writes is spot on. For roughly 15 years now, my primary professional focus has been on why IT projects fail. I do that both as a consultant (brought in to review troubled projects to get them back on track) and as a consulting or testifying expert (brought in to review troubled or failed projects now in litigation). I have reviewed hundreds of thousands of pages of project documentation and communication; I have likewise traced or reconstructed project histories for many major IT projects, including enterprise COTS projects. It's clear that Simon knows exactly what he's talking about and knows where all the bodies are buried.
The book itself is very readable. Simon's tone is conversational and a bit humorous; he occasionally dives into technicalities that would be lost on upper management, but always comes back to basic principles. The real-world and hypothetical case studies will have those of us who have been on such projects nodding our heads even as we occasionally wince or shudder. His coverage is exhaustive (and at times a bit exhausting), but his goal appears to be to give those managing and overseeing such projects the information they need to navigate the shoals. He goes into detail about COTS pitfalls such as project estimation, vendor selection, use of consultants, group responsibility, integration with legacy systems, data conversion, and report generation.
The first section of the book covers how and why firms decide to initiate a major COTS project. Besides the "Fantasy World" section that compares management expectations to what really happens, the book also covers why firms hold onto legacy systems, why they buy new (replacement) systems, and how they can (or should) make the decision among building a custom system, buying a COTS system, and "renting" enterprise software via a web-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) vendors such as Workday and Salesforce.
The second section covers COTS system selection. The book divides current ERP and COTS vendors into four different tiers based on company size and use (e.g., SAP, Oracle and BaaN are all Tier 1) and warns of the, ah, enthusiasm of vendor salespersons. (Old-but-still-timely joke: What's the difference between a used car salesman and a software salesman? The used car salesman knows how to use his own product and knows when he's lying.) The book then raises up front an issue often left (by customers) until much later: how will business processes change as a result of the COTS system we're acquiring? It then talks about selecting, if necessary, a consulting firm to help with the installation and project management.
The third section covers the actual COTS implementation process, including the overall strategy, roles and responsibilities, providing the necessary environments, data migration, testing, reports, and documentation. This section is a bit exhausting at times, but it is critical for exactly that reason: far too many firms launch into a major COTS acquisition without fully realizing just what it will take to get the system into production.
The fourth section briefly deals with life after implementation. In theory, one of the reasons a firm buys a COTS system is to avoid doing its own maintenance and support; the reality is that the firm often doesn't like paying those large annual maintenance fees and instead goes off on its own path, which is seldom a good idea.
The fifth and final section talks about how to maximize the chance of success in a large COTS implementation. This section builds upon the rest of the book, which has provided suggestions along the way. In particularly, it talks about how to deal with a troubled project mid-course in order to get it back on track.
Throughout the book, Simon puts a significant focus on human factors in project success and failure. He identifies issues such as internal politics, kingdom-building, reluctance to learn new systems, internal project sabotage, end-user resistance, and staff allocation. Simon divides firm personnel assigned to work on the COTS project into four groups — willing and able (WAA); willing but not able (WBNA); not willing but able (NWBA); and neither willing nor able (NWNA) — and talks about how each groups helps or hurts. Similarly, he identified four dangerous type of project managers: the Yes Man, the Micromanager, the Procrastinator, and the Know-It-All. Again, those of us who have been on major IT projects, particularly those involving COTS implementations, will recognize both sets of categorization and the risks they entail.
While Simon is himself a consultant, he is also quite frank about the role consultancies can play in COTS project failures. In particularly, he notes the tendency of consulting firms to underestimate project duration and cost in order to win business, as well as the frequent unwillingness to point out risks and pitfalls to the client, particularly if they represent something the client wants to do.
My few complaints with Why New Systems Fail are mostly production-related. Simon self-published the book; as such, the book's internal layout and graphic design leaves something to be desired. Likewise, his organization and prose could use a bit of editing in spots; he has a propensity for throwing in terms and abbreviations without clarification, and the technical level can vary within a given chapter. Almost all of his footnote references come from Wikipedia; his bibliography is small (just four books) and cites only Brooks from the cadre of authors listed above. None of this makes the book's content any less important or useful, but some of the very people who should be reading this book might well skip or skim it for those reasons. My understanding is that Simon is working on finding a publisher for the book, which will likely solve all those problems.
In the meantime, if you or someone you love is about to embark on an enterprise-level COTS project, get this book; I've added it to my own short-list of recommended readings in software engineering.
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