Smyrk, J. (2007). What does the term
What does the term “IT project” actually mean?: a challenge to the IT profession.

John Smyrkunconfirmed user (School of Management Marketing & International Business, Australian National University)

Published in

The concept of “IT project” is firmly established in the language of business, yet it appears very difficult to define. I propose that because the common definitions lead to internal inconsistencies, the concept itself is of questionable value.

One can infer three alternative meanings of the term “IT project” from available material:
1. A project with at least one IS (information systems) or IT (Information technology) component amongst its outputs.
2. A project undertaken within the IS/IT functional unit.
3. Any project in which all outputs take the form of IS/IT artifacts.
I propose that only the third definition is useable. (This doesn’t however mean that all projects of this type make sense).
I define an IS/IT output as an artifact taking the form either of software or of computing infrastructure. The following argument is not sensitive to a wide range of definitions.

The flaw in Definition #1. The outputs of project #A include: an organisational model (a “non-IS/IT” output) and a payroll system (an “IS/IT” output). Definition #1—suggesting that this is an “IT project”—relies however, on an implied principle: “a project is classified the same as a selected output”. But, this principle also forces us to conclude that, because this project includes a “non-IT” output, it is a “non-IT project”. Contradiction!

The flaw in Definition #2. In Company X, a project to lower procurement costs is run by the Procurement Department. In Company Y, an identical project is run by the IT Department. Definition #2 would force us to classify the first as a “non-IT project” and the second as an “IT project”—despite the fact that they are otherwise identical. That the definition is sensitive to an arbitrary decision exposes a serious weakness.

The challenge to those who use the term is this—how do you define “IT project”, why is that definition important and in what way is the classification useful?

Observation circumstances
Rather alarmingly the IT industry itself claims that the failure rates of, what it terms “IT projects” have, for many years hovered around 70%-80%! A number of issues are raised by these claims, but there is still a (depressingly) large amount of anecdotal evidence that such initiatives are problematic. I suspect that one of the causes lies in the concept of an “IT project” itself which appears to be sloppy at best and meaningless at worst.

Information about this Observation
This Observation has not yet been peer-reviewed

Published on Thursday 15th March, 2007 at 13:33:51.

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The full citation for this Observation is:
Smyrk, J. (2007). What does the term “IT project” actually mean?: a challenge to the IT profession.. PHILICA.COM Observation number 36.

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