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The Real Issues in ERP amd Business Information Systems: Introduction

This article provides an overview of the main components of the approach to Business Information System investment success as first detailed in my book in 2004 and elaborated on and taught since then

The Real Issues in Business Information Systems: Introduction

Business Insider reports "IBM Rips Into Bridgestone Over $600 Million Lawsuit"

Frank Buytendijk, vice president of research at Gartner Inc, at the firm's Business Intelligence Summit in London said "most organizations are not making better decisions now than they did five years ago."

Some months ago Bloomberg Personal Finance and many other websites reported "BMW Owners Vent Anger at Months-Long Wait for Spare Parts" relating to a SAP Warehouse implementation in which IBM was also involved.

Mark McDonald of Gartner reports "McKinsey Report Highlights Failure of Large Projects: why it is better to be small, particularly in IT"

What is notable about the above reports is that they all originate from highly reputable international sources and relate to mainstream products implemented in leading global corporations, clearly something is not right!

The McKinsey report is interesting in that it recommends small projects as being safer, seemingly oblivious to the reality that the construction industry regularly successfully executes mega projects with little fuss and consistently reliable outcomes.

I live less than a mile from one of many constructions sites on the £16 billion Crossrail project in London that is building a new railway line end to end under London, billed as the largest construction project in Europe at present.  There is little fanfare but consistent reports of steady and reliable progress and no indication of the sort of problems experienced by Bridgestone and BMW.

No one is suggesting that Crossrail should be scaled down because big projects are difficult.

Crossrail also dwarfs the Bridgestone and BMW projects.

So what is going on?

On one hand engineers just get on and make things work, consistently, reliably, day in and day out and we take it for granted that our roads, railways, buildings, factories, etc will be built and will work.  Yes sometimes there are overruns but the level of failure that is at epidemic proportions in the Business Information Systems arena is entirely unthinkable.  If engineering structures failed the way Business Systems projects fail and under-perform we would all be living in wattle and daub structures in the country and riding horses in order to keep clear of the massive failure levels that characterize Business Systems projects.

What to do?

I am a Civil Engineer by training, schooled in the use of computers for engineering applications, coupled to formal qualifications at the Regimental Commander level in the Army Engineer Corps.  As a consequence of a series of unexpected events I found myself involved in running projects to design and implement Business Information Systems.  In the process I gained experience in economics and in general business management as well as working as a practicing Professional Engineer for a number of years.

As I gained more experience with business computer systems I concluded that the business information systems industry lacked engineering rigour and that there was an opportunity to "bring the disciplines of engineering to the business systems industry".

I have been on that journey since 1989 and, in the process have learned a huge amount about what works and what does not work.

Because I had the benefit of never being exposed to the methods and thinking of the business information systems industry, I developed my methods from a first principles engineering perspective built on the fundamentals of the application of computers in rigorous engineering practice and self-taught business computer software design and development methods.

The result has been that my methods are significantly different and my world view of business computer systems is also different and, since they are based on deeply ingrained engineering disciplines and practical experience, I hold them to be better as well.

In 1990, having started out in business for my own account I rapidly came to understand that many IT projects, as we called them then, were failing, in fact about 70% were never commissioned and only about 10% actually met expectations.  Statistics which the Bridgestone, BMW, McKinsey and many other examples suggest are unchanged or worse today.  I started to speak about these statistics at conferences and found myself called in to investigate failed and sub-optimal projects and at times, turn them around.  Accordingly I built up a considerable body of experience.

In 2003 I analyzed all this information and developed what I termed "The Critical Factors for Information Technology Investment Success", I developed a course and wrote a book which is available on my website

Since then I have continued to consult and present courses with regard to these principles.  I have also gained considerable hands-on practical experience in the application of these factors.

Recently I have refreshed the fundamental analysis.

This article is the first of a series of articles in which I plan to share the different facets of this approach and, I hope, afford you the opportunity to take a fresh and better look at the way you relate to business information systems.

Whether projects or your existing operations.

The Factors for Success comprise two elements, the factors that cause failure that must be managed out of the project and the factors for success that must be managed in.  Managing the factors causing failure is, I suggest for your consideration, one of the key differentiators in what is being discussed here.

In this article I will give the headlines and then in the series of articles which I plan for you to receive in the months ahead I will discuss these components in more detail and give guidelines on how to manage them in order to achieve high value outcomes.  Articles in other threads that I intend to publish will elaborate on some of these themes as, for example, the thread relating to Strategic Essence that I started publishing recently.

Succeed by Engineering against Failure

A fundamental principle of engineering is that engineers do not design for success, they design against failure.  In other words, " engineers do not design bridges to stand up, they design bridges not to fall down".

It is a fundamental principle that a well-designed system that does not fail will succeed yet success is achieved by preventing failure as consideration of any undergraduate engineering curriculum will show.  "Factor of safety" and "probability of failure" are concepts that student engineers learn in the first weeks of their education and spend the rest of their lives understanding how to apply.  This is one reason why IT people struggle to understand engineers.  IT people are prone to hyping up their projects with road shows and flashy presentations, engineers insist on focusing on what is not working and then making it work.

The result?

Engineering structures stand up while companies like Bridgestone launch $600 lawsuits against mega IT companies for failed and sub-optimal project outcomes.  In the process the IT industry focuses on getting better and better at doing the things that got them in the mess in the first place and no one seemingly steps back and questions whether they are getting the fundamentals wrong.

I will leave you to read on and form your own view of whether there is something being presented here that is different from what the business information systems industry practices.  It is my deep conviction that if you engage with these articles and look for what is different not what seems the same, you will find some useful principles that will help you to push your business systems to a higher level.

The percentages in the points that follow are indicative of the relative importance of these factors in my experience and are also roughly indicative of the relative frequency of these factors in causing sub-optimal and failed outcomes.  I plan to discuss each of these items in more detail in subsequent articles:

1. Mythology, hype and tradition -- 30%

This is a huge subject.  The business systems industry is rich in mythology, hype and tradition and light on delivery.  Perhaps the biggest myth is a seemingly deep conviction that the current ways of doing things, that have such a poor track record will, one day, if executed really well, turn around and produce different results.

What I term "process obsession" is perhaps the single biggest myth around.

2. Inappropriate or ineffective executive custody, governance and corporate policy -- 19%

The governance and policies of major business information systems projects is frequently flawed.  Projects which are directed at business outcomes are handed over to the Chief Information Officer to run when, in fact, the Chief Executive as the custodian of the integrated view of the business is frequently the only person with the mandate and the insight to give direction to the project.

The level and mandate of other key project members is also frequently defective.

3. Lack of effective strategic alignment and strategic solution architecture -- 16%

If you have not read my series of articles on "strategic essence" you might consider doing this now, the full article is available on my website

As the examples in that article demonstrate, clear understanding of the strategic essence of the enterprise and how to translate that into practical components of system configuration, software customization and overall commissioning and operation are vital to successful high value business information system investments.  In fact, without support for the strategic essence your massive high end business information system will be little more than a glorified clerical transaction processing system -- a major factor in why Gartner reports that organizations are not making better decisions.

4. Lack of Precision Configuration -- 14%

A major distinction between the average business information system and the average engineering design is that engineering systems are designed literally to the last nut and bolt.  Business systems are generally configured to inexact tolerances with limited or no strategic insight by mid-level personnel on both the implementer and client side who have no grasp of the fact that the precision of the configuration of a system can result in variations of at least a factor of 100 in level of value and performance delivered.  Process obsession is a factor that gets massively in the way of precision configuration much of the time.

5. Failure to address soft issues, business engagement and change impacts -- 12%

"Change management, we do that!" I hear many IT people cry losing sight of the fact that change management as traditionally applied is frequently a blunt instrument to force intelligent staff to do stupid things because the system is badly configured and badly commissioned.  True engagement with the business results in systems that are easy to use, require little training and work consistently and reliably.  Yes, there is a need to train, including training standard methods of working, policies, protocols, etc but I am really talking about system configurations that are harmonized with and flow with the enterprise.

I am also saying that putting in systems to cut head count instead of putting in systems to grow the business with the existing headcount is an intensely negative and massively destructive morale and loyalty destroying practice.

6. Lack of an Engineering Approach -- 6%

The only reason the Engineering Approach has such a low score is that the other aspects have greater impact and, that said, the rigour, discipline and design against failure of the engineering approach must permeate every element of the project.

7. Technology Issues -- sub-optimal or defective software, hardware, network, etc -- 3%

Technology is virtually never the problem today and when it appears to be the problem it is generally the consequence of the other factors that are discussed in this article that manifest in bad technology decisions, configuration or commissioning.


The Critical Factors for Success

Having managed failure out of the project we can now focus on success.

Incidentally, you should have a senior project team member who has as a key project responsibility, to manage against failure.  They should sit in project meetings and listen for the factors causing failure, trap them and manage them off the project.  They should also review all project documentation, ranging from the requirements definition through to eliminating the hype from the presentation to the Board.

The factors, weighted as above, are:

1. Effective Executive Custody -- 25%

The right organizational executive in charge of the project.  A strong single individual as client project leader.  An equally strong single individual on the implementer side as project leader.  A strategic advisor to the executive sponsor who is not caught up in any other aspect of the project and, above all, NO steering committee!

Simply put, if you boarded an aircraft and found a steering committee in the cockpit I suspect you would run to get off the plane!

2. Effective Strategic definition and alignment -- the Essence of the business -- 22%

The extension of the point on strategy above, work the strategic essence into the entire fabric of the project, the configuration, the customization, the testing, the commissioning and the operation of the system.  Do not allow any person who does not demonstrate a deep and empathetic understanding of the strategic essence to give overall direction to any aspect of the project.  Capture the strategic essence in every validation list, every classification table, the Chart of Accounts

Enable the system to support the organization to do the right things well and thereby to thrive.

3. Effective engineering solution design and implementation approach -- 17%

Introduce the rigours of standard engineering practice into your project.  Problem is that most engineers do not understand business systems and business and business systems people do not understand engineers so they miss each other totally if you are not careful.

Also be careful as to what type of engineer you engage with and who you commission to brief them and induct them.  Things can go horribly wrong but if you get it right they can go really right.

4. Effective Precision Configuration -- 16%

Precision configuration as opposed to the "sloppy", inexact configurations that commonly occur in business systems are vital.  Your multi-million pound business software system is a precision machine, ensure that it is configured with extremely precise strategic information that is extremely well structured and which makes use of structured code schemes to model the hierarchies and logic in the lists.  I plan to produce a separate thread that will discuss elements of precision configuration.

5. Effective Business Simulation Laboratory operation -- 12%

An engineering laboratory is a place where key parameters of the real world are precisely modelled.  It looks nothing like the real world but it models the real world.  The business simulation laboratory is the same.  It is designed to test the configuration to destruction until it can no longer be broken, then all reports and business intelligence can be developed and tested, workflow can be optimized and embedded, training material can be developed and training can be delivered.  All this in a robust environment to engineering standards which simulates real business operations with war game type exercises that deal with all the exceptions and unusual circumstances.

The final goal is that all staff are fully conversant with the system before it is commissioned to run live in the business, analogous to the exhaustive performance tests that are applied to an engineering system before it is put into public operation.

6. Effective business integration, training, change facilitation, process specification -- 6%

Business engagement, integration, training, helping people to change, prescribing, configuring and adopting workflow (process) elements, etc.  These flow from the business simulation laboratory as a natural extension of the approach.

Handling the reality that sometimes people do become redundant.

7. Reliable technology -- 2%

Reliable technology is essential, never cut corners here.  Your goal should be exceptional response times and no compromise should be tolerated.  Do not allow some technology specialist with a mistaken idea that they need to save money here specify your hardware.  Demand high performance and specify accordingly.

The knock-on costs of under-performing hardware, networks, etc not only in terms of direct headcount cost but also morale, accuracy, etc cannot be under estimated.



If you address all the above in conjunction with a high quality technical team who know the software and a high quality business team that know the business and you treat your major investment as one of the most far reaching projects your business is likely to ever undertake you will find that application of these principles will have a huge beneficial impact.

I offer advisory services with regard to the application of these principles and would be delighted to discuss how I might be of assistance.  I also offer a light touch diagnostic service to diagnose the root cause of problems and how to fix them for both operational systems and projects that are not meeting expectations.

Yours faithfully


Dr James Robertson PrEng

Random Selection of Articles by Dr James Robertson

Dr James A Robertson PrEng The Business Information Systems Doctor

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

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:

Random Selection of Articles by Dr James Robertson

Cnf 053 Engineering Maintenance Management Methodology With Radical Rethink About Clinical Data Code Design

The current clinical data codes, ICD 10 and CPT 4 are exceptionally weak as information classification, management and analysis tools and massively inhibit the creation of clever clinical and medical software, there is a huge opportunity to redesign these codes and use the resulting intelligent codes to develop very sophisticated health management systems drawing on engineering maintenance management and other techniques in order to provide solutions for areas and countries with a limited number of healthcare practitioners
Cnf 065 The REAL Issues in IT Audit

An overview of the Critical Factors for IT investment success and the factors causing failure from an Audit perspective and presentation of a Critical Issues based audit investigation framework directed at identifying the REAL health of IT from an Audit perspective
SNw 054 What does a HIGH VALUE Business Information System Solution look like -- White Paper

An overview of the attributes of a high value business information systems implementation measured in terms of the business outcome some years after the system has been fully commissioned

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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

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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