Understanding the Context of Large-Scale IT Project Failures

Understanding the Context of Large-Scale IT Project Failures

Eliot Rich (University at Albany, USA) and Mark R. Nelson (NACS Media Solutions, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/jitsa.2012070101
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Large-scale information technology (IT) projects experience higher failure or abandonment rates than smaller IT projects and represent significant costs to both organizations and society. This paper describes the context of a three-decade long attempt to modernize a critical IT application in the U.S. government. The project has been revamped, stopped and restarted several times, and as of the writing of this paper has not been completed. Archival analysis of this implementation history reveals a set of emerging project characteristics and how these contributed to a pair of capability gaps which, in turn, influenced modernization efforts both pre- and post-abandonment. From a systems perspective, the problem appears to be related to dynamic and repeating management failures with an embedded project management model. The authors illustrate their hypothesis with a simulation model of project managements and show that even a relatively small but persistent introduction of new requirements has a dramatic effect on project overruns, setting the stage for abandonment and restart.
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Problem Context And Research Base

The empirical grounding for this work comes from examination of IT modernization efforts at the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) spanning a period of over thirty years. Using archival analysis techniques we examined documents from a variety of sources both inside and outside the IRS while adhering to guidelines for gathering historical evidence.3 Primary source material included over 750 historical documents, including audits, reports, memos, project documentation, media documents, congressional testimony, as well as previous academic studies. Photographs of operations provided contextual artifacts of the operational conditions within the agency at different points in time. After completion of the archival analysis, our findings were reviewed and refined through a small number of confirmatory interviews with individuals familiar with the relevant IRS projects and public sector IT project management.

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