Project success or failure: Johannesburg City Council

If this was somewhere in Europe or the US, the international commentators would be all over it, but as it’s Africa only those of us living here are the ones making a fuss. I am talking about the Johannesburg City Council’s SAP-based billing system, Programme Phakama, and the point in question is how do you define project success or failure, something that Michael Krigsman covers frequently.  Continue reading


Home Affairs IT project failure

Michael Krigsman makes a living from the subject of of IT project failure. There are a number of issues he discusses on project failures:

There was report in the South African Sunday Independent on 18 April 2010 which highlighted a number of the issues Michael has covered. The report concerned the bungling of the multi-billion rand contract awarded by the South African Department of Home Affairs to black-empowered IT company Gijima AST. (Note: The Sunday Independent only gives access to articles online for subscribers of its print version).

In a memo by the consultant whom Home Affairs contracted to manage the project, some typical IT failure issues were mentioned.

  1. Lack of project ownership by the client (Home Affairs), leaving Gijima to determine and drive the project deliverables, and making project governance difficult.
  2. Lack of involvement and support from the client executive sponsor.
  3. Poorly defined business case, little budget commitment and continually changing project priorities. Points 1 and 2 create this situation.
  4. Low level of capability in the client making it difficult at the IT level to get agreement on technical architecture and design specifications, as well as at other levels.
  5. Lack of end-user skills in the client to enable the project to achieve objectives.

Reading the article made me sympathise with the project manager, who I once worked with at one of South Africa’s big banks.

The question some South Africans are asking is how and if Home Affairs and Gijima can patch things up and get the project going again. From this South African’s perspective, however, one question is how would you go about reviving this project. A place to get ideas would be from Glen Alleman’s  discussion on Project Disentanglement. The other question would be, for such a high profile and high risk project, who would be prepared to take on the project management role.

How would you go about getting such a big government project back on track? And would you even want to?

Cultural extremes in less than 5 hours

There are few cities where extreme affluence and extreme poverty exist in close proximity. Like a number of other developing economy cities, Johannesburg has those examples. In the north-east of the city lies the suburb of Alexandra, which was designated a ‘black township’ in South Africa’s apartheid days. It is now has small, overcrowded and run-down houses combined with shanty-town shacks. Less than 15 minutes drive from ‘Alex’, as it is called, is Sandton, the most affluent area on the African continent.

I was in Alex yesterday afternoon, helping an NGO which is part of my church, Rosebank Union, to host a Christmas party for primary school children in the area. I spend time on Saturday mornings teaching computer studies to kids from Alex, but the teaching college is on the outskirts and so I don’t often need to drive into the suburb. However, driving into the centre of Alex, to the community centre where the party was held, opened my eyes once again to the grinding poverty of many South Africans. Seeing the conditions that they live in made me appreciate all that I have, and less willing to tolerate those South Africans who complain about minor issues. At the end of the party, all the kids got fed, were given a small present, and a basic food parcel.

I then drove north to Fourways, an area which has developed in the last 15 years to the Design Quarter shopping centre, for a 27dinner evening. The experience of walking in to the centre was almost surreal, it felt like I had suddenly jumped to somewhere in Europe or North America. I wondered whether any of the affluent (mainly white) people sitting in the restaurants around the centre knew how life was being lived in a run-down suburb a few kilometres away.

The cultural extremes between Alex and Fourways kept running through my mind during the evening. For foreign visitors, I would now strongly recommend that they include half a day during their trip to go through Alex and then drive to Sandton.

Farewell ProActive

I was shocked recently to hear that a previous employer, ProActive Integrators, one of the larger SYSPRO VARs in South Africa, had closed its doors. As with a large Sage VAR, the MIS Group in the US, it seems that a combination of market conditions and financial issues forced the company to cease business. I wish Duncan, Eugene, Bev, Ray and all the other people there, all the best and trust in God’s blessing for them.

When do acquisitions make a company too big?

There seems to be a belief in some quarters that when it comes to IT companies, the larger the better; for example, Acquire Me! Oracle’s and SAP’s Next Likely Targets which quotes:

"A move by Big Blue, say on a midmarket ERP partner like Lawson or Infor, could presage further consolidation in that arena by Oracle and SAP." (The 451 Group report – Where Might Old Foes Oracle and SAP Each Look Next to Stave Off Apps Hunger Pangs?)

However, from a customer (and a partner) point-of-view, dealing with some larger ERP vendors means going through the bureaucracy to get even small things done. Also, large software vendors seem to go for a centralised control model. It might be old news, but at a conference in 2008, I was told by a senior local representative that Oracle’s process for confirming quotes for SA companies could only be done by Head Office in the US, this required a wait of several weeks before a quote could be approved.

Waiting that long for a quote might be OK in some countries, but South African business people are not typically enamoured by long decision cycles.

Why are ERP consultants needed?

In a blog on the ITtoolbox site, Steve Phillips comments that companies are moving away from using external ERP consultants in favour of using in-house expertise – Why ERP Software Consultants Cannot Save The Day.

His view is:

The ownership philosophy is about controlling your project destiny and built on some fundamental principles. … 1) It is possible to take internal responsibility for project management. 2) It is possible to develop and/or acquire internal software expertise to the point outside application consultants are rarely needed. 3) It is possible to become much more educated and less reliant on the false sense of security an army of consultants can bring. 4) It is possible to realize ERP benefits by developing better software and business process solutions with fewer outside consultants. 5) It is possible for internal personnel to do up to 70% of what many pay consultants to do.

Except for item 4, in my experience, I haven’t found any companies that can do what he suggests. I suspect it is a function of certain factors – a primary one being the size of the organisation. But I also believe that business maturity, and the availability of knowledge and experience play a significant part.

In the South African market, most businesses fall into the small-to-medium (SMB) category. Employees in SMB companies tend to take on more than one role (debtors and creditors, pre-sales technical and sales, production planning and management) which leaves them little time to focus on issues which are not directly relevant to the job they must do. So finding time to acquire software expertise is difficult or requires after-hours learning. In time, and if a person stays in the same job, they might become “more educated and less reliant.” However, given their time constraints, it is highly unlikely that people will have the time or knowledge “to do up to 70%” of what a consultant will do.

Also skills and expertise are in short supply in this country, so someone who develop technical skills may easily find themselves moving out of their business job and into a technical or consulting role. Similarly, project management requires experience and time to spend on it, which senior staff in SMBs (e.g., finance managers and directors) rarely have. Companies will tend to have a less senior person overseeing the project, but all the details and work that goes into project management has to be done by someone with the background and time allocation to do it – in other words, a consultant.

In the South African context, therefore, most average companies (not large ones over 1000 people) do not have the people, skills or time to take on an ERP implementation themselves. The cost of bringing in consultants outweighs the risks of failure in trying to do the project in-house.

Unproductive April 2009

April 2009 was definitely the month in which South Africans did not get much work done. In every week this month there has been a public holiday – all but one planned well in advance; the unplanned holiday was the election day on 22nd. That means we have not had a 5-day working week for 4 weeks. The last week is the shortest, with only 3 working days.