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Sunday, 16 June 2013


If you take a train from one of the suburbs in Nairobi and snail your way through the industrial area section of the city, you will notice corroded train tracks weaving into shells of industrial complexes that have shuttered-in broken windows with clear signs of wear and tear, and a heavily applied coat of aging dirt.   If you are from another bygone era you will probably shake your head nostalgically, as you remember the well-oiled industrial vibrancy that preexisted in this area, when beer brewing and cement producing factories would ship in raw material and ship out finished products on the same rail tracks.
All we have nowadays is infrastructure covered with grass-bushes and oversized weeds competing to get some lazy sunshine in an era of laxity and waste.
The One Laptop per Child initiative was one of the most ambitious projects to come out an Ivy League technology lab. Behind it lay an ambitious effort to leverage digital technology in the fight against poverty.
Rwanda, Peru, Argentina, Venezuela, Mongolia, Haiti, Ethiopia and Uruguay were some of the countries that embraced this initiative, and with good reason, they have a lot vested in bringing their populations into the 21st century technologically. Unfortunately five years later, there are mixed reactions to the success rate of this well-intended initiative. While Uruguay, a flat terrain country of less than 4 million people that is moving its population to 4G in a phased approach, has had success in this project having given every elementary school child and teacher the machine and in the process achieved ubiquitous internet access.  Peru, on the other hand, has displayed every quality reminiscent of a failed initiative. Off course different studies on this initiative are arriving at different conclusions and that is justifiable given their outlook and vested interests. But one glaring question that all of them seem to want answered is what the goal and the scope of this initiative was in Peru. 
If you look at the stumbling blocks that faced the project in Peru, and they are many, from the ill-prepared rural teachers, who were often unable to fathom, much less teach with the machines, software bugs that didn’t get fixed, less than 1% of the laptops having an internet connection, schools with no electricity to keep the machines functional, to the rugged terrain of the country, you begin to question whether nature was playing a bad joke on the ill-prepared strategists who hadn’t thought through this idea. 
A study done by the Inter-American Development Bank even went as far as stating that there is little evidence regarding the effectiveness of this program based on a look at 319 schools in rural Peruvian communities that got laptops. “The magical thinking that mere technology is enough to spur change, to improve learning, is what this study categorically disproves”, it noted. The study found no increased math or language skills, no improvement in classroom instruction quality, no boost in time spent in homework and no improvement in reading habits.
But the study was also speckled with a positive note that could probably spur continued support for this project, “the dramatic increase in access to computers, accelerated by up to six months, student’s abstract reasoning, verbal fluency and speed in processing information”. Supporters of the project have taken this to mean that these are the essential 21st century skills that ideally should have been tested, skills such as those developed by the audio visual tools the laptops possess.
A study by the Chartered Institute of Information Technology discovered that only one in eight Information Technology projects can be considered  truly successful, but despite that, huge amounts of money still continue to be invested in IT projects and subsequently get written off. Why is this “madness” the norm?  To answer that question we have to take a step back, and first ask why projects fail, and if we cut through the thick wad of answers that come flooding through, you will begin to trace foundational reasons that seem unanimous; because of impossible to meet or poorly defined deliverables, poor communication, inadequate or poor project management, lack of change management mechanisms, inadequate resources, poorly defined requirements, inaccurate estimates, poor risk management and over optimism.
Every project that commences has four principal elements that tilt it towards success or failure  
Banfield hit the ground running
depending on how much focus and appreciation they are given. They are cost, scope, time and quality.
So if we go back to the question of “madness”, if we were to give IT projects, a personality we would have to say they have a bad disposition and are genetically predetermined to fail, mainly because part of what drives them are new untested technologies that are difficult to use or predict, they also have aggressive time schedules that seem to race against time itself, putting to shame even the arms race that existed between the Russians and the Americans. They also lack resources for various reasons including lack of capital, lack of understanding, to inadequate or no support from stakeholders, and then again everyone knows they normally have unrealistic expectations.

So…while you are out there about to begin a project or deeply engaged in one keep these elements in mind and I wish you success in your project.

Article was done for CIO East Africa Magazine April 2013 issue. 


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