The Problem of Legacy Humans in Technology Projects

Most IT projects would be an unmitigated success if only it wasn’t for humans.


Humans have an annoying habit of resisting change and refusing to conform to the often rigid requirements of a database ontology or software application.


Corporate IT projects have a high failure rate, the multibillion-pound UK health service patient record system being just one high-profile example.


In Africa the failure rate of ICT projects in the field of international development (ICT4D) is at least as high. The reasons are often all too human.


It has become commonplace to say that only 20% of the challenge is technical and that 80% is people, but what does this actually mean in practice for technology project management?


In Zambia, as elsewhere in Africa, development is often done “at” rather than “with” local people by external “experts”. This technocratic approach to development often meets user resistance, and sometimes plain indifference, that ultimately compromises the success or “sustainability” of the project. In the face of such resistance external “experts” are often quite incredulous at the ingratitude of intended “beneficiaries” who they believe have failed to appreciate the enormous opportunity that they are missing.


The reality is that if, throughout the project cycle, people are not regularly asked what priorities they have for their own “development” there is no compelling reason why they should demonstrate enthusiasm for the latest technical “solutions” thrust upon them. It is not the job of technocrats to determine what is in anyone’s best interests; people need to be given the regular opportunity to determine their own interests and priorities, and then projects need to deliver against them. Anything less is not authentic development.


Corporate IT projects are often designed top-down by technical experts to solve problems which they conceive of narrowly as engineering issues. This technocratic emphasis fails to understand the social nature of the enterprise and the fact that all change processes involve some loss of continuity, loss of security, and, for some, loss of status and benefits. Wherever there is loss we must expect resistance. In IT projects the losers are often those who in the past had derived power from being the traditional gatekeepers of information and communication.


In international development it is accepted wisdom that if local communities do not get to participate in all key stages of project conception, definition and implementing then projects fail.


There is also an ethical issue here. People are the objects of human development – not institutions or technical infrastructures. So it is critical that they are the authors and architects of the process, their capacity for self-determination enhanced. When there is authentic participation people are not the passive objects of the cunning development projects of external “experts”, but are instead active subjects transforming their world for the better. As such they tend to be enthusiastic project champions, not sites of resistance.


In corporate IT projects the motivation to replace legacy systems is often to secure institutional efficiencies as cost savings, but “legacy humans” need to be considered too. Investment in genuinely participative staff consultation about how new technology might benefit them too can be a means to build local project ownership and avoid expensive user resistance to imposed change.


There is also the potential to harness the wisdom of the crowd. Consultation can be a mechanism to crowdsource intelligence from front-line system operators about potential system and workflow improvements that may not be apparent from a merely technocratic viewpoint.


Empowering users through participative project management processes offers the potential to deliver benefits at the human level and on the bottom-line. Turning recalcitrant “legacy humans” into project champions through genuine participation gives intended users a real stake in project success and results in technical progress, as if people mattered.


This post originally appeared in my Computer Weekly column in May 2012