Wednesday, December 31, 2003


The e-Development Group at the World Bank uses e-Transition as a metaphor, one that I think it quite helpful. It suggests a process by which institutions and societies are transformed from their current ICT infrastructure and use to some future, preferred ICT infrastructure and usage. It is a good alternative to the “project” metaphor.

“Information system projects appear to have an alarmingly high failure rate, even in
developed countries — half of large implementations fail, half suffer disputes” according to the World Bank ICT Task Manager’s Handbook. How can it be that half of projects fail, while it is obvious that ICT dissemination not only continues unabated, but increases in speed and intensity?

I suggest one answer may be that there are externalities to ICT projects that are not counted in measuring project achievements. Thus people learn about the technology during projects, and apply the knowledge and skills in new circumstances; organizations reengineer processes and structures during ICT projects, and are then better able to deal with new ICT efforts and better perform their functions after projects are finished. Other institutions, such as markets and sectors, are restructured during projects, and function better and are more amenable to future improvements as a result.

Another explanation, is that the project metaphor may often fail, or at least be less successful than the transition metaphor. The transition metaphor directs attention to progress made in the transition – toward the ICT capacity that has been developed and the stage reached in the transition process.

The transition metaphor suggests that projects be considered as steps in a larger transition. A project’s success is then to be measured not only against the specific technical goals of the project, but against the contribution that the project has made to the overall transition.

The transition metaphor also suggests criteria for project selection. Projects should be selected not only according to their costs, nominal benefits to the firm or institution if successful, and likelihood of success, but also according to the stage reached in the transition, and their likelihood of success in terms of that stage and their likely contribution to the transition process.

Thus, at the beginning of an e-transition, projects might be chosen as “low-hanging fruit”, with high probability of success; initial failures are bad for the process and project failure can better be accommodated when the process is well established. Similarly, early projects might be visible solutions of widely felt needs, so that their successes generate broad support for the transition process.

Similarly, projects should be seen as interrelated steps in the transition process. This some ICT projects will not be feasible or effective without prior success in others. Thus governments will be unlikely to develop online land registration processes without first computerizing the land registry; businesses will be unlikely to develop B2B e-commerce without first developing many underlying ICT applications to allow rapid response to online business opportunities.

In short, the e-transition metaphor is at least a valuable complement to the project metaphor, and perhaps is a higher level metaphor that helps rationalize project planning and evaluation.

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