Computing Applications

Wanted:project Teams with a Blend of Is Professional Orientations

Desired qualities include a strong technical orientation, end-user empathy, and organizational awareness.
  1. Introduction
  2. Professional Perspectives
  3. Professional Perspectives and System Failure Perceptions
  4. Professional Perspectives and Perceived Skills
  5. Professional Perspectives and Team Effectiveness
  6. Composing a More Ideal Team
  7. Conclusion
  8. References
  9. Authors
  10. Figures
  11. Tables

Much has been written over the years about the failure of system development projects. The literature describes these “failures” as projects that are over budget or behind schedule, and often as projects that just don’t work. In the U.S. alone, 1995 estimates indicate $59 billion in cost overruns on IS projects and an additional $81 billion on canceled software projects [1]. While the pool of qualified, experienced IT professionals continues to shrink, projects staffed with the right people still fail [12].

Communications columnist Robert Glass summarized the results of a study by Linberg [10] that reveal a new perspective on software project failure. Practitioners identified a project that was significantly over budget and behind schedule as the most successful software project they had ever worked on! In identifying possible reasons for budget and scheduling problems, these practitioners describe expectations established at the outset with management’s and team members’ approval as suspect. Thus, the need for developing better ways to approach software development issues [4].

Here, we introduce an approach consistent with Linberg’s findings [10]. We suggest that an understanding of the orientation or perspective that qualified, experienced IT practitioners bring to the development arena might mitigate issues associated with the difficulty in managing IS projects. A risk management strategy acknowledging different orientations would seek to minimize risk by creating project teams of members with diverse orientations.

To this end, we extend the debate concerning how to promote information system project success by introducing three dominant orientations or perspectives toward system development projects: technical, end user, and sociopolitical orientations. This existence of diverse orientations among system development professionals raises an important question for managers: which orientation is more effective for system success? Given a wide range of system failures, skills required for IS professionals, and the existence of multiple criteria for measuring system success, we suspect there is no preferable orientation for system development. More importantly, the success of a project requires aspects associated with all three orientations. Teams should, therefore, be organized to incorporate software development professionals from each orientation to ensure consideration for all potential software project risks.

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Professional Perspectives

Many companies provide a series of team-building training activities in the form of physical challenges and psychological preference indicator tools toward the goal of improving project performance through teams of individuals that might work together more effectively [12]. We propose that knowledge of professionals’ perspectives (technical, end user, and sociopolitical) adds an additional dimension for consideration as a team-building strategy.

Technical Approach. Technically oriented IS professionals recognize the importance of IS staff commitment, careful planning, and the use of structured techniques. These employees believe projects should have quantifiable benefits and should be managed by a steering committee. The literature has frequently described this technically oriented IS professional as given to subscribe to overly technical and economic design ideals [11]. As professional “technicians,” these professionals are not perceived as managers and are described as lacking knowledge of human needs and motivation. They often treat information about the system as privileged, believing that end users may have neither the interest nor the ability to understand anything having to do with programming and software design. Admittedly, the technically oriented software development professional may be viewed by end users as uncooperative and unwilling to provide user requirements. Some IS practitioners argue that a technical orientation can discredit software development professionals and suggest, in some cases, that project teams “make do” without them.

This sense of ownership was dominant among IS development professionals when computer systems were controlled by a central IS organization. As software development trends continue to evolve that support off-the-shelf software using object technologies and graphical user interfaces, end users are acquiring more technical sophistication and a greater interest in understanding how systems work, thus requiring greater control over systems.

By emphasizing the importance of technical and project control issues, these professionals offer a project team the advantage of their considerable technical expertise and concern for remaining on schedule with the project. This technically oriented professional would tend to promote the need for quantifiable closure at each stage of project development.

End-User Approach. End-user oriented practitioners believe end users should play an integral role as part of the software development team from the system definition phase to final training prior to implementation. These professionals place great importance on user requirements specification. Considering end users an integral part of the development team, practitioners stress the necessity of addressing real and important user needs. Project progress is frequently monitored in terms of its ability to satisfy changing user requirements. The end-user oriented professional views the development process as an important means for obtaining user acceptance.

Having end-user oriented staff on a project ensures necessary steps are taken to see the system meets user needs and that special efforts will be made to ensure user acceptance of the system. A project team of end-user oriented staff would be more adaptable to changing requirements and would require continuous feedback from users. User resistance and user cooperation issues would thus be minimized.

Sociopolitical Approach. Practitioners described as sociopolitical in orientation recognize complications involved in dealing with different end user personalities as well as the system failure often associated with turnover among end users and top management. These professionals recognize the importance of a technically competent IS staff and would seek to manage project development by splitting large projects into smaller ones. From a sociopolitical perspective, system success or failure is perceived as a product of the interaction of system development activities with the intraorganizational distribution of power, defined objectively, in terms of horizontal or vertical power dimensions, or subjectively, in terms of symbolism. Thus, user resistance and politics is inevitable on IS projects; it is futile to fight it. Successful project managers accommodate it, placing greater emphasis on user attitudes and expectations, IS commitment, planning for change, and management support.

What Does the Population Look Like? To verify the existence of these professional perspectives, we extend Dos Santos and Hawks’ findings that system professionals’ attitudes vary and that assignment of professionals to projects could have an effect on project success or failure [3]. The same survey statements applied in [3] (see Table 1) were presented to IS professionals from six large private organizations (including one of the largest consulting and telecommunications firms in the U.S.) to help illustrate the relationships between system professionals’ orientations, their perceived skill needs, system failure reasons, and project effectiveness. Respondents included systems analysts, IS project leaders, and IS department managers from organizations averaging 1000 IS personnel. A total of 239 experienced IS professionals returned questionnaires. Table 2 provides a description of participants’ characteristics.

Orientations and Combinations. Analysis of survey results reveals yet another venue in which IS professionals exhibit different professional perspectives when considering attitude statements related to project development. These perspectives are revealed in almost two-thirds of professionals as a single perspective toward development projects. Approximately 20% of participants view technical issues as the dominant orientation for successful system development, 22% of our subjects fall into the end-user category, and nearly 23% of our subjects are classified as strictly sociopolitical in orientation.

The remaining 35% of our subjects were members of subgroups of respondents who were homogeneous in their endorsement of two or three values based on component scores. Respondents in the user and sociopolitical group represent 7% of the sample; user and technical respondents represent 7% of the sample; and sociopolitical and technical represent 9% of the sample. Respondents showing no significant orientation dominance pattern represent approximately 12% of the sample. Figure 1 summarizes the orientation groups represented by our subjects.

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Professional Perspectives and System Failure Perceptions

Lyytinens’ [11] framework for classifying reasons for system failures reveals that causality spans a wide range from highly technical issues to human behavior factors. Technical issues include inadequate design, insufficient specification requirements, incomplete development assumptions, and an inadequate technical environment (that is, inappropriate platform and/or software) for implementation. Human behavior factors include users’ and IS designers’ attitudes, communication problems, individual differences, and user turnover.

Based on practitioners’ responses, the relationship between professionals’ system development perspectives and their perceived reasons for system failures was examined. Results indicate a strong relationship between orientations and system failures. Technical reasons for system failures relate directly to a technical orientation toward system development. User reasons for system failures are most significantly related to the user orientation, and the political/managerial environment reasons for system failure are associated with the sociopolitical orientation. Of additional interest is the very weak association between a technical orientation perspective and user-related system failure reasons, and sociopolitical professional orientation and technical system failure reasons.

These findings suggest the assignment of professionals to projects could affect whether or not the system succeeds or fails based on the relationship between professional orientations and system failures. The implication for successful IS projects is to employ practitioners from each orientation and ensure project development teams are composed of practitioners from a variety of orientations. Knowledge of practitioners’ orientations provides an awareness of potential problem areas. While not a guarantee for success, this implementation seems critical to the prevention of failure.

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Professional Perspectives and Perceived Skills

The literature suggests that the skills needed for system development professionals are dependent on the contextual needs of their users and organizations. Dimensions of skill context then include the organization, the responsibilities, and the technology available. Green [5] identified four general categories of IS skills for successful systems delivery: technical, political, communication, and management skills. Researchers contend that different development orientations and skill sets are more effective for developing different project contexts.

The relationship between IS practitioner’s perceived IS skill needs for system development and their orientations toward system development was examined. Results indicate a strong relationship between skill needs and developer’s orientations. A user orientation is positively related to communication and business skills. A sociopolitical orientation is positively related to political skill. Technical orientation is significantly associated with technical skills. On the other hand, a technical orientation is “negatively” associated with communication skills, and sociopolitical orientation is “negatively” related to technical skills.

Thus, the skills emphasized by IS staff relate to their perspective (orientation) toward system development. A technical development orientation supports the need for technical skills, sociopolitical-oriented IS professionals stress importance of political skills, and user-oriented IS professionals stress communication and business skills as important. Furthermore, the user-oriented skills may be overlooked by technically oriented IS staff and technical skills may be overlooked by sociopolitically oriented IS staff.

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Professional Perspectives and Team Effectiveness

A major goal of team development is to help people work together more effectively to improve project performance. Thus, the organization must ensure people are assigned to projects based on their skills. Once teams are formed, a variety of tools and techniques exist for developing teams, that is, ensuring the people on the team work together. These tools include training courses, team-building activities, and reward and recognition systems [11]. Team development that takes into account IT professionals’ orientations adds a new dimension to the development of project teams involved in system development.

Team effectiveness is the extent to which a team meets or exceeds standards in outputs, organizational commitment, and satisfaction of group members [12]. Many suggest that team performance should include two dimensions: technical-related performance and user-related qualities. Technical-related performance covers traditional engineering evaluation criteria—effectiveness, efficiency, and timeliness. User-related performance focuses on the end users’ satisfaction with their interactions with team members.

Previous findings suggest the assignment of professionals to a project team has an effect on a project’s success. People who have complementary skills and are committed to a common purpose should represent a team. The development of an IS project requires the pooling of a variety of sources of expertise and organizational resources. Selection of the right professionals to form a team is critical. The results of this study provide additional support for the notion that IS staff from different system development orientations will emphasize different dimensions of projects’ effectiveness and may overlook other dimensions [3, 7, 12]. Figure 2 details the relationships examined between IS professionals’ orientations and their perceptions of system failures, perceived skills, and project effectiveness.

Given the established relationships between professional orientations and skills, failure perceptions, and varying aspects of team effectiveness, it is feasible to use the measure of these orientations to build better teams with a variety of necessary orientations.

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Composing a More Ideal Team

In order to work effectively as a team, it is important for people to understand, even value, others’ differences [12]. Project success involves aspects of all system development orientations and all critical skills. Study results indicate each system development orientation correlates with a respective perception of system failures (user orientation to user-related failures and so forth). Different orientations may be needed to avoid different causes of system failures. Teams, then, should be organized to incorporate system development professionals from each of the orientations in order to minimize the risk of user, technical, and environmental failures. This can be accomplished by hiring professionals with orientations different from those within the organization and by exposing IS professionals with one orientation to different development processes. The organization could also adopt development technologies that force the examination of aspects that may be ignored if practitioners do not exhibit the complete set of orientations.

Knowledge about any one of these characteristics—orientation, perceived skill needs, perceived system failure reasons—is useful in forming integrated project development teams.

What are the mechanisms for implementing integrated project teams? The key is to match personnel to the required tasks and assign practitioners to projects where their strengths (relative to other practitioners) are most likely needed and their weaknesses will cause few problems. Given the conclusion that IS professionals have orientations corresponding to their skills, project teams should be selected by matching either the orientation or skills appropriate to the development context. The orientation of a system development professional indicates the direction one’s actions will take in completing project tasks as well as the skills employed.

Almost two out of three IS professionals in this study are very specific about their perspective toward system development and the instrument used to ascertain these perspectives is freely available. The survey could be used during the hiring process to seek a balance of orientations in new hires or in conjunction with team-building training activities. Given an understanding of the end user, technical, and sociopolitical motivations involved in system development, project managers might modify their team-building strategies to include professional orientations consistent with development perspectives.

We thus introduce a systematic mechanism for identifying IS professionals by perspective. This mechanism can be used to assign members to project teams. To use the scale, obtained responses to the 33 survey statements should first be examined for high responses in areas specific to a single objective. Table 3 provides guidelines necessary to indicate a candidate displays a single perspective toward system development. If a professional has high responses to all items in a single area only, then this professional is identified by the associated category. In those cases where high responses exist across perspectives, a cross comparison of high responses will indicate the combined orientation of the professional.

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System development professionals display three dominant system development orientations (technical, end user, and sociopolitical) or a combination thereof. These orientations relate closely to perceptions of system failure (user, technical, environments). The perceived skill needs of these professionals further corroborate their orientation. Given these results, we suggest that knowledge about any one of these characteristics (orientation, perceived skill needs, perceived system failure reasons) is useful in forming integrated project development teams. Further, the ability to ascertain an employee’s orientation for team assignment purposes can be accomplished outside the department by human resources personnel through testing using the orientation scale in combination with other instruments, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, indicating personality preferences [12]. The employee characteristics may then be used to develop successful, diversely oriented teams.

The benefit of these results to organizations is their ability to organize project teams that capitalize on the strengths of different system development professionals based on the project focus. If systems are user-focused, usually less structured and reliant upon relevant knowledge of the user, user-oriented developers have a greater impact on the team. A technical focus, more structured and well-defined specifications, lends itself to placement of team members with a technical orientation. Software development professionals with a sociopolitical orientation are better suited for projects in a less controlled process environment. Inclusion of a mix of development orientations on each project team will ensure the necessary ingredients and thus minimize the risk of system failure.

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F1 Figure 1. Orientation groups.

F2 Figure 2. Relationships between orientations and system failures, skills, and project effectiveness.

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T1 Table 1. Abbreviated survey statements.

T2 Table 2. Respondents’ demographic information.

T3 Table 3. Leading indicators of individual professional perspectives (a high response to each item in a given area indicates a single orientation).

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