Monday, 8 June 2009

Government IT projects – time for change

The debacle of the C-Nomis project (see Tony Collins blog for the background) highlights the need for fundamental changes in the way that government (primarily Central Government – local government seems to be far better) procures new IT systems.

As I have previously
posted, I recommend breaking large projects down into smaller, more manageable chunks. But, perhaps more importantly, ensuring that the requirements for the project have been accurately and completely defined – prior to a specification stage that includes detailed walk-throughs with real-life end users. This is the most important phase of an IT project – yet is typically rushed or overlooked, and frequently completed without adequate reference to the managers and end-users that will be using the system.

I’m a great believer in “phased fixed price” contracts for dealing with large projects that require the development of customised software – splitting out each phase into separate contracts where the current phase is on a fairly firm basis (ideally fixed price against an agreed definition), with budgeted prices for the next phases (typically based on some broad brush assumptions of what will come out of the each phase). Such an approach allows for the requirements collection phase to be contracted separately and carried out by potential eventual developer (if you want to know how to do this in a way that allows for subsequent changes in contractor, please contact me).

All too often, major government IT contracts are awarded to big service suppliers rather than splitting off the development stages (that frequently generate lower revenues than the roll-out and related infrastructure stages) to specialist software developers, and leaving the other stages to the service suppliers. The culture of specialist software development businesses is different to that of the major service suppliers, a culture which is more likely to deliver a better software solution (whilst service suppliers would be better at the other stages of a large new IT project).

As the C-Nomis project proved, a lack of focus on the core requirements, system design and expected benefits, has resulted in a system that met neither the business objectives, nor the project budget and timescale. I suspect that it’s been a great business success for the service supplier who has benefited from the budget increase from £234M to £513M – no doubt far outweighing any bad PR from this obvious failure.

How many more project failures will there have to be before we see Government recognising the need for splitting up large projects into smaller, more manageable chunks, ideally allocated to different specialists for the different types of contract?

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Capita to divest IBS Revenues & Benefits unit

The Competition Commission has published its final report on Capita’s acquisition of IBS and, unsurprisingly, it has announced that it is requiring Capita to divest the IBS Revenues & Benefits unit.

The report points to the several problems with the partial divestment of the R&B unit (Capita would be allowed to keep the Social Housing unit if it can achieve the partial divestment of the R&B unit), but has apparently obtained assurances from Capita that it will pick up any additional customer costs such as additional licensing costs and/or separation of an integrated IBS database into separate R&B and SH databases.

I would imagine that existing joint R&B/SH customers of IBS will not be too pleased about losing their single contractor, single point of contact and integrated database, but if Capita had been allowed to keep the IBS R&B unit, in the long run, perhaps Capita would have moved the customers off the IBS R&B product any rate, so the customers would have lost many of these benefits without the forced partial divestment.

There seems little doubt that the value of the R&B unit to purchasers will be reduced by the partial divestment, rather than a full divestment of the whole IBS business including the SH unit, but I suspect that Capita will much prefer such a partial divestment. Although the value realised will be less, and the partial divestment will be more time consuming and messy, given the likely smaller price tag, there are likely to be more potential purchasers – and, given the unknowns, I suspect that it will be some time before the divested unit becomes a forceful competitor again in the R&B market.

There is the risk that if a partial divestment is not achieved, the CC will require Capita to go down the full divestment route – a route that I’m sure Capita will wish to avoid at all reasonable costs. Although Capita has
announced that it is “in early discussions with interested parties”, no doubt the due diligence and purchasing process will take several months, but it will be very interesting to see who the succesful purchaser of the IBS unit turns out to be .....

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

FOI to apply to suppliers? has pointed out that there is an impending extension of Freedom of Information powers to cover suppliers (see here for the article).

However, I believe that software and associated service suppliers will not be affected – any extension is likely to be limited to BPO contractors – and not software suppliers operating on either a conventional licensing or SaaS approach.

It will be interesting to see where any extension stops as far as IT services and managed services are concerned. Where a managed service is limited to supplying a working computer system for use by public sector employees and/or their contractors, then I believe that any FOI extension will not affect this sort of service any more than current contracts/legislation require.

Where a service supplier provides a fully-outsourced IT service, any extension is likely to be less well defined. My personal view is that FOI should not apply to such contracts, but from the comments flying around at the moment, I believe that there is pressure to bring these types of contracts into the FOI arena. This will no doubt provide lots of work for the legal profession over the coming months/years....

Monday, 1 June 2009

Google Waves hello to Microsoft

Possibly to try to counter Microsoft’s launch of its new search engine Bing, Google last week pre-announced its new Google Wave product - a “new-age communication and collaboration tool” that seems to combine e-mail, instant messaging, and bulletin board functionality, with strong support for multi-media, into a single product.

I’ve only seen the developer preview at last week’s Google I/O 2009 conference (see
here for the 80-minute video of the presentation), and whilst it was clearly still buggy in its development form, and will not be on general release before the end of this year, it seems to be a serious future competitor to the Microsoft tools that currently dominate corporate communications.

Particularly impressive to me were the collaboration aspects of Google Wave – potentially very effective for project teams to communicate ideas and make decisions – together with the ability to replay the messages/discussions in order to see how the discussion went from initiation through to current time. Given the potential benefits for improved collaboration, I can see that small technology operations (like software houses) – particularly those using a high level of remote working, be they home-working or distributed offices – will be the early adopters; the question is, will the major corporates follow?

However, whilst such tools would be great for in-house use, I struggle to see how one might manage the security implications of opening up such ‘waves’ to users external to one’s own organisation – or even across departments in large corporates or organisations.

I also wonder about the level of server computing power (and network capacity) necessary to support just internal heavy usage – let alone the power/bandwidth necessary for public utilisation.

Google is planning for Google Wave to be open source, and through its pre-launch in San Francisco last week, is trying to encourage the developer community to embrace the product, and use the API’s to produce bolt-ons (‘gadgets’ and ‘robots’). The plan appears to promote open networks, with anyone being able to become a Wave operator, with ‘Wave’ running on a distributed network model operating on a peer-to-peer basis.

Whilst I suspect that Google Wave will need to change before its open launch - to address both potential security and performance issues - its innovative functionality will undoubtedly drive significant changes in the way we all use e-mail and instant messaging in the future. I’m intrigued to see how Microsoft will respond....

Bing launches this week

Wednesday 3 June sees Microsoft launch Bing, its new search engine– although Microsoft describes Bing more as a “decision engine”.

If you want to know more then there are a number of write-ups around, or try looking at Microsoft’s
press kits or view a short (less than 3 Minutes) video.

However, the initial launch will focus on the American market, with only a Beta version available in the UK – where we’ll have to wait around another 6 months before we see a version of Bing optimised for UK searches.

I had the opportunity to have a demo of Bing when it was known as Kumo, and I was impressed by the potential of Kumo to make better sense of the search results. But the demo had a very strong American bias, and worked best to the demo script – adhoc departures from that script showing up the early stages of the development.

Only in practice will we be able to see if Microsoft has come up with a Google-beater. It will be interesting to try out Bing in anger – even if the results will be focussed towards users on the other side of the Atlantic....