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About the Engineering Approach

Throughout this website I make reference to The Engineering Approach.  The Engineering Approach is central to who I am and the way I think about projects.  It was core to my original intention in 1989 "to bring the disciplines of Engineering to the IT Industry".  This article provides an overview of my understanding of The Engineering Approach 25 years on

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The Engineering Approach to Business Information Systems Defined

Throughout my website and my presentations I make reference to “The Engineering Approach”, I analysed this in 2003 and incorporated it in my book “The Critical Factors for Information Technology Investment Success” in 2004.  It has been discussed in my Briefings and Courses ever since.

It now seems appropriate to revisit this core element of my thinking in 2014 and capture all the learning that has taken place in the last ten years.

The Engineering Approach is summed up by two images that I refer to constantly in my courses and conference presentations:


On the left, a sophisticated Arch Bridge that has been standing for decades and which our society as a whole has a reasonable expectation will continue to stand for many decades to come.

On the right, the bridge failure in Minneapolis a few years ago in which 13 people lost their lives and 145 were injured and numerous vehicles were destroyed.  Failure occurred as a consequence of a series of mistakes that overloaded the bridge in an extremely unlikely manner resulting in the failure of one small component that in turn triggered the rest of the collapse.  The bridge had been standing for decades and it can be taken as a given that NONE of the people killed or injured had the SLIGHTEST reservation about crossing that bridge that day – such is our level of confidence in large engineering structures.  Note also that the collapse was on Television and Radio worldwide within minutes of the event, such is the level of surprise at such a failure.

It is a harsh reality that if one reads the reports of ERP and other Business System failures listed in my Catalogue of Failure the majority of projects end up at best as crude fords made of rubble dumped in the river and NOT as elegant and reliable bridges such as shown above.  Those that DO get to function as bridges are prone to failure at a level that causes huge business damage, as evidenced by the situation at Bridgestone.

So, WHAT is the essence of this thing that I call “The Engineering Approach?”

1.  It Works

Robust, tough, no nonsense, real, practical – IT WORKS.

People who become engineers become engineers because they thrive on the challenge of crafting things that work and work WELL, reliably, dependably, day in and day out.  People who become engineers for the money generally do NOT last long and that already starts to point to a problem in the Business Systems arena, there are a significant number of people who are in it because they regard it as easy low risk money.

2.  Failure is NOT an option

Engineers HATE failure, they spend most of their formal education and on-the-job training learning how to PREVENT failure AT ALL COSTS.  Engineers examine EVERY possible factor that can cause failure and they engineer it out of the solution.  By “engineer” I mean they systematically deal with every single element that can cause failure.  Engineers live, eat and sleep factors of safety against failure and managed probability of failure.  Engineers understand deeply that failure is INEVITABLE UNLESS they systematically design and manage failure OUT of the solution.

Engineers “design for success by engineering against failure”.

Engineers do NOT design bridges to stand up, they design bridges NOT to fall down – there is a FUNDAMENTAL difference in approach and attitude.

Pressing the delete key on a project that is under construction is NEVER an option!

Engineers have proven, tried and tested methods.  If they move beyond the realms of proven methods they are meticulous in ensuring that their extrapolation is safe and reliable.

Engineers do NOT engage in reckless experiments with new and untested technology just because it is there.

Engineers favour tried and tested technology unless there is REAL benefit to the client of moving into the realms of the latest and greatest.

3.  Highly qualified and accountable Professionals

Highly qualified, mature and accountable Professionals lead engineering projects.  Certified and licensed Professional Engineers hold four year honours level University degrees and at least three years of appropriately supervised and mentored in-service training BEFORE they can undertake ANY work unsupervised and they must undergo rigorous licensing procedures in order to be let loose on the world.

Even then it is many years before an engineer will be allowed to lead a major project and that will ONLY be permitted on the basis of years of relevant experience and proven track record – remember, engineers HATE failure and inexperienced people guarantee failure.

When I say that REAL engineers are “Professional” I do NOT just mean that they make their living from engineering, I mean that they are DEEPLY loyal to their profession, they have deep allegiance to their professional body, they CARE about the outcome and will do whatever it takes to achieve success.  No matter what the inconvenience or loss.

Engineers are subject to harsh statutory controls and aggressive sanctions including the possibility of criminal charges in the case of negligence or recklessness and their peers will actively support such charges in the event that they see that they are warranted.

Engineers have a deep recognition of, appreciation for, and respect for maturity and gray hairs, people who have been around the block, made mistakes, learned the hard lessons, KNOW how things REALLY are.

Engineers charge a fair rate for every level of team member and do NOT over charge for juniors and under charge for seniors and then short change the client on the seniors.

Engineers stand up to the client when the client wants them to do something that is dangerous or reckless.  True Professionals REFUSE to let the client go live until they are 100% certain it is safe to do so!

Are you starting to see a problem with regard to many of the people that one encounters in the business systems industry?

4.  Detailed design and specification

Engineers produce detailed drawings, specifications and schedules, down to the last field attribute and field exit process.  The last database field, the fine details of a robust set of test data that is FULLY representative, in fact has been engineered to be fully representative.  Detailed screen layouts, etc such that client personnel can fully engage with and comprehend the design, appropriate workshop methods, simulations, etc.

Engineers habitually have another engineer review their work and have technicians undertake the fine detail of the design under close supervision.  Engineers leave NOTHING to chance, they KNOW that success is a necessary consequence of rigorous quality control and attention to detail in every element of what they do.

Engineers expect to go through formal approval processes and have formal approval certificates issued.

Engineers expect and THRIVE on PRECISION.  They LOATH sloppy and ill-disciplined work.

5.  No compromise testing

Engineers undertake rigorous and non-compromise testing in a structured and formal laboratory environment.  They invest considerable effort in producing highly detailed test packs and test scenarios.  They are aggressive testers going out of their way to test every possible scenario and obscure extreme event.  They work systematically to explore every single option and they break it until it can NO LONGER be broken.  They thrive on working towards the formal issue of the Certificate of Acceptance of the testing and they get extremely irritable when confronted with sloppy programming and other sloppiness -- such as widely characterises the IT industry and particularly the business information systems arena.

6.  Multi-disciplinary integrated view

Engineers have a multi-disciplinary integrated view of the requirement, the project and the solution.  They recognize the FULL diversity of disciplines that are required and they ensure that they have ALL of those disciplines on the project team.  Whether it be basic bookkeeping and T diagrams, software design, strategy, executive communication, writing skills, the psychology of change, documentation, training materials, training, testing, coding, aesthetics, ergonomics and ease of use, data, data engineering, precision configuration, interview techniques, analysis techniques, facilitation techniques, note taking, project management, scheduling, project administration, liaison and project communication, precision of language, accurate writing, layout of screens, database design, diverse technologies, procurement, contracting, operation of the laboratory, etc.

Engineers embrace this multi-disciplinary diversity, they consult as and when necessary, even if for half an hour if they realize they lack expertise.  Engineers do NOT guess, they ask UNTIL they find mature experience to substantiate their approach.

Engineers ensure that there is a senior project director / leader / manager / architect depending on the size of the project who has the breadth of knowledge and experience to capably hold the full holistic integrated headline view of the solution and direct the entire team as an orchestra carefully coordinated to work together against a clear step by step plan to arrive at the final solution.

Engineers may work in specialist silos but there is ALWAYS a solution architect coordinating and tying everything together and owning the integrated strategic business solution view.

7.  Fundamental first principles approach

Engineers apply a fundamental first principles approach.

They build every structure from the ground up, brick by brick, reinforcing bar by reinforcing bar, bucket of concrete by bucket of concrete, bolt and nut by bolt and nut, line of code by line of code, data element by data element.

They understand how software REALLY works, they have written software while they were in training, they understand databases, they worked on those while in training, they understand communication techniques and precision language, they understand data and taxonomies.  Engineers do NOT take short cuts and cut corners.

They do NOT indulge themselves in fantasies with regard to ever more abstract and obscure layers of configurability to a point where NO ONE understands how things work and the costs of construction are orders of magnitude greater than simply building the system from first principles.

Engineers do NOT engage in mystical language like “cloud” and “process” to describe mundane elements and confuse clients.  They are NOT always looking to sell the client more for the sake of revenue targets.  They DO what is necessary.

Engineers UNDERSTAND what they are doing, they have done it before under the mentoring hand of a more senior and more experienced engineer and IF they do NOT understand they stop UNTIL they have found someone who DOES understand.

8.  Deep understanding of data and Precision Configuration

Engineers have a deep understanding that really it is the DATA that matters and that Process, that is WORKFLOW, is an incidental design output.  They model the business with great precision and continue to engage with the data and the configuration until the client is entirely familiar with it and entirely satisfied that it accurately and completely represents the business or organization to the software.

Engineers understand that it is the core master data, validation data and core configuration, coupled to carefully thought out and well designed and built software that is THE deliverable.

Engineers use PRECISE language and do NOT call something a “process” when it is NOT.

Engineers understand that strategic configuration and strategically focussed validation data, master data and configuration IS the opportunity and can deliver HUGE value with simple solutions.  They understand that precision configuration drives workflow optimization and operational efficiency leading to head count reduction as an ancillary benefit of a well-engineered solution.

Engineers NEVER undertake projects for head count reduction and regard human beings as valuable and to be treated with respect and compassion as THE asset of the business.  Yet, at the same time they accept that IF the solution really delivers there WILL be headcount reductions, all the way up the organization.  BUT REAL engineers focus on facilitating the client to grow their business so effectively that there are NO job losses only sustainable strategic growth that creates MORE employment MORE profitably and more competitively.

9.  Total Commitment – I WILL make it work

Engineers ARE COMMITTED!  “I will make sure that it works to specification NO matter what long hours I work and whether I get paid or NOT”.  Engineers own their mistakes and do NOT expect to get paid for fixing them.

Engineers are loyal, ethical, honest.  Engineers do NOT lie because the bridge will NOT stand up because you lie about the amount of cement in the concrete – the bridge WILL FIND YOU OUT – in the same way that the plethora of failed business systems projects around the world are pointing to suspect governance and suspect ethics.


A proven model that builds exceptional structures around the world daily – a culture, an attitude, a breed of men and women who are passionate about crafting high quality, high reliability solutions that grace our lives in every area of human endeavour.

The reality?

There ARE MANY people in the IT / Business Information Systems / ERP industry who conform to much of the above.


NOT all of it.

Many of them work for small companies that give their heart and long hours for little money to produce clever and appropriate systems that get trashed as a consequence of some lie like “Cobol is obsolete” when estimates indicate that there are 200 times more Cobol transactions processed daily than Google search queries and other reports suggest that SAP’s ABAP language is similar to Cobol.

And, more importantly, the management of many of the players, perhaps in naïve ignorance because they are NOT engineers, have NEVER designed and built things that work in the real world and believe that revenue targets are more important than robust, reliable solutions delivered with integrity lack MANY of the attributes referred to above.

The BRUTAL TRUTH is that the business information systems industry is an industry of amateurs and hackers.  YES, there ARE solid professionals out there and, IF you find one, look after them like gold, but there are a lot who lack the formal rigorous training and disciplines of engineers.

How do YOU respond to this information?

Look critically at the players on your playing field and assess whether you need to course correct.

Locate a strategic advisor who can help you to course correct.

Put the sort of disciplines and methods that are discussed throughout my website into place and start to raise the bar.

If you are embarking on a new project then adopt the Robust Procurement approach that I advocate – a tough contract is a powerful means of discouraging chancers and ensuring you select a tough and honest supplier.  Also a powerful means of FOCUSING their attention when times get tough.

And, when all else fails, give me a call!

James Robertson

03 September 2014

Download The Engineering Approach to Business Information Systems Defined -- Article in Adobe pdf format

Random Selection of Articles by Dr James Robertson

SNw 053 Strategic Essence: The Missing Link: Part 5 -- Discovering Strategic Essence

Overview of a simple and reliable process that you can apply to determine the strategic essence of your organization
SNw 055 Business Process – irrelevant, distracting and dangerous

Business process is the focus of most business information system implementations and is highly ineffective, this article goes so far as to suggest that business process is irrelevant, distracting and dangerous and that there are other much more effective techniques that should be applied
Cnf 074 A Moral and Ethical Dilemma -- Systems that Fail

The prevalence of IT project failure, the factors that cause failure, the Critical Factors for Success, the problem of IT people who lie, issues of integrity, morals and ethics, the need for a regulatory body and legislation

Dr James A Robertson PrEng

Business Systems NOT delivering?

Call the Business Systems Specialist

Dr. James Robinson

Dr James A Robertson -- has been involved in the effective application of Business Information Systems, including but NOT limited to ERP, since 1987 and in the profitable and effective use of computers in Business since 1981.

Drawing on a diversity of experience, including formal military training in Quick Attack techniques at the Regimental Commander level, Dr Robertson has developed highly effective methods of investigating any sub-optimal Business Information Systems situation -- be it an established system or a stalled project or any other source of Executive frustration -- quickly and concisely diagnosing the root cause of the problem and prescribing concise practical actions that Business Executives can effectively act on see the Pulse Measurement page and also the Sample Reports page for redacted real reports.

He has also developed highly effective methods of strategically enriching systems to unlock the full potential of existing investments, see the Precision Configuration page and couples this to architecting small pieces of clever software that harness the full potential of your investment, see the Software page.

If you are having problems with your systems, your project or your IT Department, call The Business Systems Specialist

Business System Failure is RIFE -- we offer insight into why this happens AND WHAT is required to prevent it.

Failure is at epidemic levels with massive damage done to client companies -- if you are NOT aware of the extent of the problem please visit the About Failure page for a catalog of major failures running to billions of Pounds and Dollars.

All evidence indicates that the established players do NOT know how to deliver stable, reliable high value solutions that WORK.

There HAS to be a better way!

This website provides information relating to that way with a large collection of white papers, presentations, standards documents, etc that you can use to start bringing the situation under control

We also offer high level advisory services with regard to the application of the principles advocated on this website

We offer an ENGINEERING APPROACH to addressing these issues

Click here to read more about the Engineering Approach

By Engineering I mean the formal, structured, highly disciplined, highly systematic, highly practical approach that consistently delivers results in ALL areas of human endeavor where formally trained and certified engineers are the ONLY practitioners permitted to operate -- think large buildings, factories, motor vehicles, aircraft -- highly complex systems that work at a level that we take it for granted that they WILL work and where failure is all but unthinkable and, when it happens, attracts immediate public attention and rigorous investigation directed at ensuring that such failures are prevented in the future -- in fact, everything that the management consulting industry that implements complex software systems is NOT

This approach is discussed further on the Engineering Approach page.

Search Articles

Random Selection of Articles by Dr James Robertson

Prd 042 The REAL Value that James Robertson brings to a Business Systems Project

An overview of the diverse areas of knowledge and experience that Dr James A Robertson PrEng brings to his work with regard to Business Information Systems and how this enables him to unlock exceptional investment value
Cnf 077 A strategy focused planning system beyond traditional budgeting

Strategic change focuses on the essence of the business and how it thrives and undertakes activities directed at achieving lasting competitive advantage, an approach to budgeting is presented that seeks to bring the fundamentals of strategic analysis and design into the budgeting process
SNw 048 Robust Procurement: Part 2 -- Bill of Services, Laboratory, Go-live Certificate, etc

The importance of a formal bill of services, a business simulation laboratory, the issue of formal certificates including a formal go-live certificate and related matters

Book -- The Critical Factors for Information Technology Investment Success

In 2003 I undertook an in-depth analysis of all the information and experience that I had gathered with regard to the factors giving rise to Business Information System failure including ERP and general IT and classified this information into a number of categories including "The Factors Causing Failure" and "The Critical Factors for Success" based on this I developed a two day Course "The Critical Factors for Information Technology Investment Success" which is still offered today.

Based on this I wrote the book of the same name, which is available in electronic form here for download:

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Detailed information about James Robertson on LinkedIn

James has a very detailed profile on LinkedIn should you require further information about him.

You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/in/DrJamesARobertsonERPDoctor

James has an open networking profile -- click on "Connect" and use email address James@LinkedIn-at-JARA.com.

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Articles by James A Robertson and Associates

There is a large body of white papers, articles and other content produced by Dr James Robertson available on this website

Please click here to visit the detailed listing of articles

ArticleTagCloud for Articles Published by James A Robertson and Associates

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Table of Contents


About Dr James A Robertson PrEng -- The Business Systems Doctor -- and Other Topics

Catalogue of Major Business Information System Failures

About the Engineering Approach

James Robertson's Value Add

Attributes of a HIGH VALUE solution

Recognizing Business System Failure

The Critical Human Foundation

Old Software IS Viable

From South Africa

Competencies of Dr James A Robertson PrEng

About Professor Malcolm McDonald

Table of Contents

About my relationship with the Almighty Creator, Yah the Eternally Self-Existing

Comments relating to the Business Systems Industry and other topics

Testimonials and other positive material regarding James Robertson

Reference Articles

List of Articles

Article Catalogue

Achieving High Value Business Information System outcomes

Executive Custody -- What is it and HOW do you get it?

The REAL Issues in Integrated Business Information System Success

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2 -- Mythology and Lack of Executive Custody

Part 3 – Strategic Alignment and Precision Configuration

Why your ERP is NOT delivering and HOW to FIX it

IT Project Management

Pulse Measurement

CEO Anthony Lee Comments on his experience of the Pulse Measurement

No Charge Guarantee on the Pulse Measurement Service

Examples of Pulse Measurement Outcomes

Critical questions regarding the Pulse Measurement™

The Pulse Measurement Workflow

The Critical Factors for Business System (ERP+) Investment Success in the Pulse Measurement

Indicative Pulse Measurement Durations

What is a JAR&A Pulse Measurement?

Survival of the fittest – why it makes sense to measure the pulse of your business

Examples of Pulse Measurement Outcomes over 24 years

Sample Pulse Measurement Reports


Strategic Essence: The Missing Link in Business Information Systems

Strategic Essence: Overview

Strategic Essence: Part 1 -- Strategy Defined

Strategic Essence: Part 2 -- Differentiation

Strategic Essence: Part 3 -- The Essence IS Different

Strategic Essence: Part 4 -- The Essence should be the Point of Departure

Strategic Essence: Part 5 -- Discovering Strategic Essence

Strategy -- the Essence of the Business: What is it and how do you develop actionable strategic plans?

Simple Steps to Increase the Strategic Value of your ERP Investment

Free Strategic Snapshot Toolset and Manual

A strategy focused planning system beyond traditional budgeting

Tough IT and ERP Procurement and Contracting that Works

Robust Business Systems Procurement

Part 1 -- Introduction

Part 2 -- Bill of Services, Laboratory, Go-live Certificate, etc

Part 3 -- Executive Engagement, Bid Compliance, Adjudication and other matters

Procurement Documents

Guidance and Advisory Services

The Art of Project Leadership

Why Regular Communication with the CEO is Vital

The Business Simulation Laboratory

Precision Configuration and Strategic Business Information Architecture

Precision Configuration based on Strategic Engineered Precision Taxonomies

The JAR&A Cubic Business Model

Highly Structured Strategic Chart of Accounts -- a Vital Element of your Corporate Information Arsenal

The Product Catalogue -- an Essential Element of any Precision Configuration

Attributes -- answers to the questions you have NOT yet thought to ask

Case Studies of Notably Successful Projects with high value Precision Configuration

092 Doing things differently and better -- ASCO Case Study 2-- BPM Summit 2013

088 Strategic ERP Invesment -- ASCO Case Study -- Service Management Conference and Exhibition Africa

026 Information Architecture and Design of FIS for Rennies Group -- Financial Information Systems Conf

018 CRM Risk Control: Designing and Implementing an Integrated Risk Mgmt Sys -- Integrated Risk Mgmt Conf

011 V3 Consulting Eng: Benefits of MIS to Professional Practice -- SAICE 15th Ann Conf on Computers in Civil Eng

Strategically Enriching your Business Information Systems

Part 1 -- Introduction

Part 2 -- Principles of Data Engineering

Part 3 -- Steps in applying these recommendations

Simple Steps to increase the strategic information value yield from your Business Systems Investment

The Full JAR&A Taxonomy Manual

Part 1: Introduction, Problem Statement, Definitions and Examples

Part 2: Why Use JAR&A, Required Knowledge and Experience, Cubic Business Model and Chart of Accounts and Taxonomy Software

Part 3: How to do it, Case Studies and White Papers and other References

Example General Ledger Manual

Business Process -- Irrelevant, Distracting and Dangerous

The RIGHT Approach

Custom Strategic Software Design and Oversight of Construction

Standards for Custom Software Specification

What IS Software?

IT Effectiveness

Organizing Outlook

Critical Factors for I.T. Success

A Moral and Ethical Dilemma -- Systems that Fail

Case Studies examining Business Information System failures

The BBC Digital Media Initiative Debacle

The Bridgestone -- IBM Conflict

Speaking and Training

Showcase of Conference Presentations

Most Viewed Presentations

Briefings and Seminars

Why your ERP/BIS is NOT delivering and HOW to FIX it

ERP and IT Procurement that Delivers Results

The Critical Factors for IT and ERP Investment Success

Other Seminars

Conferences and Public Presentations

Conferences 80 to 99 -- 2009 to Present

Conferences 60 to 79 -- 2005 to 2009

Conferences 40 to 59 -- 1996 to 2005

Conferences 20 to 39 -- 1994 to 1996

Conferences 01 to 19 -- 1989 to 1994

On-Line Seminars (Webinars)

Webinar on Preparing and Presenting Webinars

Contacting James A Robertson and Associates Limited