Billions of pounds are wasted every year on new IT systems, according to a report published today (22 April) by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the British Computer Society. Despite many examples of good practice, there is still a lack of professionalism in software engineering that could even be dangerous in safety-critical systems. Britain is failing to produce software engineers and managers with the IT and project management skills to commission and execute complex IT projects

“The UK public sector alone has spent an estimated £12.4 billion on software in the last year and the overall UK spend on IT is projected to be a monumental £22.6 billion,” says Basil Butler, Chairman of the working group that produced today’s report. “We looked at a range of studies showing that only around 16 per cent of IT projects can be considered truly successful.” Even conservative estimates put the cost of such failures into tens of billions of pounds across the EU. “I wonder if the Government has assessed the risks of its latest proposal to merge the IT systems of the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise?” asks Professor John McDermid, Professor of Software Engineering at the University of York and a member of the working group.

There is a major software engineering challenge to deal with the inexorable rise in capability of computing and communications technologies but the Academy and the BCS are concerned that our Universities are not producing people with adequate skills. Today’s report recommends that all senior IT practitioners designing and delivering high-consequence systems should be either Chartered IT Professionals – a new qualification being launched by the BCS – or Chartered Engineers. “It is time for the IT industry to recognise the engineering content of their work and to embrace the discipline and professionalism associated with traditional branches of engineering,” says Professor McDermid. “In fact, there is a powerful argument that registration should be mandatory for people working on high-consequence systems like safety-critical or banking software. We think the Office of Government Commerce should consider this.”

One of the problems with cutting-edge software is that it is often hard to visualise what the system will do. “I wouldn’t ask an engineer to build a 1,000 metre long concrete beam suspended at one end because I know it can’t be done – I have a physical perspective on it,” one respondent told the working group. “With software it’s never like that. We don’t have any underlying feel for whether something is even feasible.” It is a cardinal mistake to select suppliers for a complex IT project on the basis of price alone, since it is very difficult for suppliers to accurately predict costs at the outset. If a customer is asking for something unrealistic or ultra-high risk, the supplier should tell the customer and encourage them to review the project.

“Projects are often poorly defined, codes of practice are frequently ignored and there is a woeful inability to learn from past experience,” says Professor McDermid. “The role of systems architects is critical – their job is to translate a business vision into a technical blueprint. They often hold the keys to success in complex IT projects but they are in very short supply. The UK could benefit enormously from exploring ways to identify and support people with these unique skills.”

“It needs to recognised that IT and software projects have many of the characteristics of traditional engineering programmes,” says Mr Butler. “Many software and IT projects could benefit from employing the disciplines applied on other major projects.”

Professor Wendy Hall, President of the BCS says “The BCS firmly believes that increasing professionalism is key to improving success rates on projects – it is fitting that this report should be issued at the same time as the BCS is launching its Chartered IT Practitioner scheme.”

Notes for editors

  1. This report was compiled by a joint working group of Fellows of the Royal Academy of Engineering and the British Computer Society:

    Basil R R Butler CBE FREng FIMMM, formerly Managing Director, BP plc (Chairman)
    Peter K Blair OBE FREng FIEE, Formerly Technical Director, Racal Defence Systems Ltd
    Dr Allan J Fox FREng FBCS FIEE, Formerly Managing Director, Harlow Laboratories, Nortel Networks
    Dr Ian A M Hall FREng FRAeS, Formerly Engineering Director, British Aerospace
    Keith N Henry FREng FICE, Formerly President and Chief Executive, Kvaerner E&C plc
    Professor John A McDermid FREng FBCS FIEE FRAeS, Professor of Software Engineering, University of York; Non-Executive Director, High Integrity Solutions Ltd
    Dr John Parnaby CBE FREng
    Formerly Group Director, Lucas Industries plc
    Chairman, Aston Academy of Life Sciences Ltd
  2. Founded in 1976, the Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship - comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers - provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.
  3. The British Computer Society (BCS) is the industry body for IT professionals and a Chartered Engineering Institution for Information Technology. The BCS is responsible for setting standards for the IT profession. It is also leading the change in public perception and appreciation of the economic and social importance of professionally managed IT projects and programmes. In this capacity, the Society advises, informs and persuades industry and government on successful IT implementation.

For more information please contact

Jane Sutton or Tom McLaughlan at the Royal Academy of Engineering
or Chris Webb at the British Computer Society
tel. 01793 417569