Socio-complexity and IT Project Performance
University of St Andrews
University of St Andrews
22nd February 2010
Executive Summary 3
What exactly is Socio-complexity? 3
Why Socio-complexity matters? 4
How it can be managed? 4
Socio-complexity could be costing your organisation money in terms of diminished
project performance (increased delivery times, costs, and decreased functionality)
and inadequate deliverables resulting in poor user satisfaction. Fortunately recent
research indicates that it can be identified, measured and therefore the risks
managed. The University of St Andrews, as part of the LSCITS Project, is
developing a Socio-complexity toolkit to aid practitioners identify and manage
specific Socio-complexity derived risks that could impact the outcome or impede
the performance of their projects.
What exactly is Socio-complexity?
The symptoms of socio-complexity are commonly observed in IT projects as: poor
support from users and management which is often associated with the project
manager not having direct control over resources; the project being under-
resourced or being provided with inadequate resources; the project causing
changes in business processes; a rapidly changing organisational environment
leading to changes in users’ information needs and business processes; or the
project causing changes in organisational structure.
In academia we recognise these observations as symptoms of complexity, or being
complicated, where complicatedness is the property of a system that we are
unable to predict the effects of actions due to a lack of understanding of critical
variables or their interactions. Socio-complexity is the complicatedness associated
with the interactions between people and groups of people. This means Socio-
complexity focuses on complexity caused by multiplicities of perspective,
assumptions & interests.
Why Socio-complexity matters?
Figure 1 - Diagram summarising regression analysis of sources complexity and IT Project Performance
– Adapted from Xia, Lee, Communications of the ACM, Vol. 47, Issue 5., May 2004
Over 60% of IT Executives identify organisational issues as more important than
technical issues however they are unsure sure how to address them (Doherty,
King, 2001). In support of this academics have demonstrated that Socio-complexity
is a more significant impeder of IT project performance than technical complexity
yet on the most part it is inadequately managed. A regression study of 541 projects
across a variety of industrial sectors was conducted by the University of Minnesota
(Xia, Lee, 2004). The findings revealed that the average project has far more
technical complexity than socio-complexity however socio-complexity has a far
larger impact on project performance than technical complexity (See Figure 1). The
result indicates that risks derived from Socio-complexity negatively impact delivery
time, cost, functionality and user satisfaction far more than either Structural IT
complexity1 or Dynamic IT complexity2. This suggests that whilst practitioners are
effective at coping with IT complexity this is not so with Socio-complexity as project
performance is significantly impeded by it.
How it can be managed?
The University of St Andrews is researching & developing a Socio-complexity
toolkit to aid practitioners cope with Socio-complexity. The toolkit will:
aid practitioners identify projects in their portfolios likely to be impacted by
Socio-complexity via recognition of common indicators;
Structural IT complexity is complexity derived from multiple user units, cross functional project teams,
multiple software environments, real-time data processing, multiple technology platforms, significant
integration with other systems, and multiple contractors and vendors.
Dynamic IT complexity is derived from IT infrastructure changing rapidly, IT architecture changing rapidly,
software development tools changing rapidly.
aid practitioners find project specific socio-complexity risks and suggest
approaches for managing them.
The toolkit will also support the whole-project lifecycle: being useable as an upfront
feasibility tool; as an IT project assurance tool; and as a retrospective ‘Lesson
Oil & Gas Sector – The Socio-complexity toolkit is currently being used to
investigate the feasibility of migrating from an internally hosted server solution
to an Amazon EC2 cloud solution. The toolkit was used to identify severe and
moderate project specific risks as well as potential benefits.
Healthcare Sector – The Socio-complexity toolkit has been used to perform a
retrospective ‘lessons learned’ analysis of a well-known IT driven organisational
transformation that resulted in failure. The toolkit identified the Socio-complexity
derived risks of the failure and these risks were mitigated in a successful follow-
up project indicating that the kinds of risks identified contribute toward the
performance of IT driven organizational transformation projects.
About the Authors
David Greenwood is a PhD student at the University of St
Andrews. His research expertise is in how ‘Social factors’ impact
IT Project performance and the role of conflict in Complex IT
Ian Sommerville is a full Professor of Software engineering at the
University of St Andrews and the author of a widely used
textbook on software engineering, now in its 8th edition. His
research expertise is in complex dependable systems.
LSCITS is the UK's national research and training initiative in the science and engineering of
Large-Scale Complex IT Systems.
Leading British academics and industrial practitioners established this national strategic
coordinated research and training initiative with a headline funding of over £15m. Research is
being undertaken at a consortium of universities including Bristol, Leeds, Oxford, St Andrews and
The motivation for the LSCITS Initiative is the on-going growth in the size and complexity of
information technology (IT) systems. Our ability to develop, maintain and manage such systems
is falling behind the growth in their complexity. There is a high risk that we will find ourselves
reliant on IT systems that we don’t fully understand and that we cannot effectively manage.
We are addressing this risk at different levels of abstraction through the research of: Complexity
in Organisations; Socio-Technical Systems Engineering; High Integrity Software Engineering;
Predictable Software Systems; and Novel Computational Approaches.
School of Computer Science
St Andrews, KY16 9QT, UK
+44 1334 463253