New technology to prevent future IT flops in the public sector
University of Copenhagen researchers have developed a new technology to help public agencies and organizations avoid IT project failures and save society billions of danish kroner. The technology allows for a radically different approach to the digitization of an organization from past methods and is already being used by one of the Danish government's largest IT suppliers.
Amanda, Polsag, EFI. The list of major danish public sector IT project failures is long, with a bill running into the billions of tax kroner. However, after ten years of work in the area, researchers at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Computer Science have developed a new technology that helps organizations digitize their work in a more simple and flexible manner.
Public sector IT systems are often case management systems that help public agencies optimize their workflows and manage the documents of citizens. These systems are usually based on an analysis of organizational workflows.
"Over the years, a lot of money has been spent on creating great big fancy maps of organizational workflows, without their having worked out in practice. Our new technology takes a more simple and agile approach, based on descriptions of the requirements and regulatory rules that a public agency must adhere to," explains Professor Thomas Hildebrandt, who researches the digitization of workflows and business processes at the Department of Computer Science.
Among other things, the new system provides case workers with a checklist of activities that needs to be resolved prior to a case being closed. The specific tasks needed to achieve a goal are detailed for case workers, without specifying the order in which to achieve them. This allows case workers to manage their work as they see fit, so long as case rules are adhered to. The technology also makes it easy to remove, modify or add new rules should laws change occur or rules become interpreted differently in practice.
Reality is not an assembly line
According to Thomas Hildebrandt, rigid and overly complex IT solutions are a major reason why so many public and private IT projects fail. Projects often become too large, inflexible and are inadequately tested prior to a system’s real world release.
"Where things go wrong is when you hop into solution mode and describe idealized workflows - when you think that you have an overview prior to implementing a system. Often, without involving users with professional expertise. It's a factory-like mindset that only works with highly-predictable processes," he says, adding that systems running the new technology are far more flexible and easily amended as changes occur - in administrative procedures, for example.
The system has been developed in a collaboration between researchers at the IT University of Copenhagen and DCR Solutions, and has already been adopted for use by KMD, one of the Danish government’s largest IT suppliers, as well as several Danish municipalities, including Syddjurs Municipality. Furthermore, both Deloitte and Implement consultancies have begun to certify their consultants in the new system and the mindset behind it.
So, is this the end of large public and private IT projects that go wrong?
"That all depends on how quickly people adopt the new approach. We have been drawing Swimlane diagrams for 50 years, an approach that remains somewhat stuck. But with the great amount of interest and spread of this technology, we will hopefully succeed with more and more IT projects while avoiding ineffective or quite simply illegal IT systems in the future," says Professor Hildebrandt.
The new technology is being developed further in EcoKnow, an Innovation Fund Denmark supported research project, where the method of digitizing requirements and regulatory rules remains in its initial phase. The second phase will use artificial intelligence to help digitizing rules and discovering optimal workflows for activities.
Facts and background
- A flowchart describes an order of activities from start to finish. Choices along the way determine potential directions. The new technology allows case workers to describe the requirements, regulatory rules and activities of a workflow, as opposed to describing the precise order in which the work is to be accomplished, as in a flowchart.
- The technology can be built into case management systems in other sectors where workflows must adhere to rules and regulations, but are not entirely predictable, such as in the finance, biotech, and construction sectors.
- The system is available to anyone interested in supporting digital workflows/business processes.
- The new technology is based on a rule-language called Dynamic-Condition Response (DCR).
- Danish public sector case management systems are currently being upgraded. 80% of local and national government casework should be equipped to support DCR by the end of 2019.
- Ongoing development is taking place in EcoKnow (Effective, Co-created and Compliant Adaptive Case Management for Knowledge Workers), a research project funded by Innovation Fund Denmark’s Grand Solutions. (EcoKnow.org)
- The technology is also being tested by the project in an Italian municipality.
Five things that typically go wrong
- An organisation has insufficiently considered the goals and desired benefits of digitization, or lacks reliable data to support the achievement of potential gains.
- One fires those knowledgeable about the workflows being digitized, only to find out that digital workflows are insufficient - and that they are now missing the competencies needed to fill in gaps and maintain the digital workflows.
- Projects become too big and complex, and are overwhelmed by reality prior to roll out.
- One thinks they can identify business processes by talking to people, drawing flowcharts and leaving it up to IT workers to do the digitizing.
- One fails to emphasize that a system must be implemented gradually, and easily and cheaply adapted for those within an organization, such as case workers.