October 28, 2021

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IT projects do go wrong, and tech chiefs are feeling the pain

Past experiences often shape the way we approach situations, and it’s no different for tech executives tackling digital transformation. And for many, their experience of digital transformation projects has been anything but good.

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Companies are pouring billions into projects to upgrade their processes, and in some cases their entire business models, with digital technologies. But not all of those projects are ending in success.

A study polling 500 IT decision makers at some of UK’s largest organisations, commissioned by software company Citrix, has found that 85% of them believe past experiences with major digital transformation projects are important, noting that the experience gained from former projects impacted how they viewed and approached similar initiatives today. 

Now for the bad news: over half said they have been ‘burned’ by digital transformation projects that did not go according to the initial plan, these negative experiences leaving them hesitant about future digital transformation programmes. A similar proportion said their projects had been somewhat challenging in reality — although nearly all (94%) of the IT leaders went into their first digital transformation programme confident of its outcomes.

Still, most execs are learning from the mistakes: even though 87% claimed they have worked on a failed digital transformation project before, they have mostly turned this experience to their advantage. In fact, 43% claimed that they learned from the experience and can use it to their benefit moving forward, with 29% admitting that the failure helped identify a new business requirement.

“These new findings shed a bright light on how impactful digital transformation programmes can be for those that work on them — for good and bad. It’s encouraging to see that many have been involved with successful projects in the past, even if they didn’t always go ‘to plan’ — and their importance to the business ensures they do not shy away from taking on new initiatives,” Citrix UK and Ireland regional VP Mark Sweeney said.

On the flipside, the research also indicated 44% of tech leaders said they felt less confident in taking on new digital transformation programs in the future, while another 51% stated it made them more cynical.  

For Sweeney, these past negative experiences are not necessarily a bad thing. He insisted that IT leaders should not feel disheartened by them.

Factors such as overspend, slow progress, and mismatched expectations can see programmes categorised as disappointments, and it’s important that leaders use the experience to their advantage, by reflecting on learnings that could benefit future projects, he said.

“It’s important that decision leaders take the time to effectively plan for any digital experience projects and ensure that they are taking into account employee experience too.”

Being stung by past negative experiences is not uncommon, according to Brian Ferreira, Gartner ANZ VP and managing executive partner. At the same time, it’s not just past experiences that are holding IT leaders back from pushing ahead with digital transformation projects; it’s also about figuring how to make the most of these projects.

“We’re very good at getting the platforms ready,” Ferreria said.

“But we’re slow to involve the business to say, ‘How do you want to use this?’ That’s the sticking point: How do you use this at the end point between the employee and the customer or the employee and the citizen? What we call ‘democratised technology’ is the hesitancy point.”

Irrespective of such hesitancy, the momentum around digital transformation programmes is ramping up. Ferreira believes future transformation projects will take one of two forms: The first is where the appropriate technology platforms are in place to allow for transformation, and the other is where the programs are more focused on making changes to the underlying technology before any client-facing modifications are made.

Sweeney sees a similar level of ambitious in these projects, even if things have gone badly in the past.

“In future, digital transformation programmes are going to be more ambitious than ever across all company sizes, headed up by a variety of seniorities. It is interesting to see that — despite many respondents experiencing failure in the past — there isn’t a preference towards less ambitious future projects from today’s decision makers, indicating that we’re likely to see more innovation occurring faster than ever before,” Sweeney said.

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