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Dr Dennis Mark Laxton

A vast formless, machine is quickly and tirelessly wrapping its itself around the earth like a “virtual glove”. It is being built from an endless array of electronic components whose power, range, and size are far greater than the sum of its parts. This titanic but largely hidden structure is the nervous system of “cyberspace”. Why? Is there a purpose to this expansion of cables and underground infrastructure? The answer is simply, yes, and can be summarised in one-word Communication.

Reframing Project Management: Part 1

For more than a year now, the Project Management Forum has recognised the importance of communication. It is like the lifeblood of a project, or the oil in an expensive machine. Understanding one another is imperative to the success of a project, and this can only be achieved by understanding how people communicate, and what constitutes effective communication. Poor communication can result in the following:

  • Low productivity
  • Mistrust
  • Lack of commitment to the project
  • Confusion
  • Insufficient direction and leadership
  • Power struggle and conflict
  • Unclear requirements

Like the Gutenberg printing press this information superhighway (the Internet) is altering the course of human history, catapulting present day society fully into globalism, as spatial distance collapses between previously divided groups, and world economies are becoming smaller, the impacts of our actions are becoming more widespread. Global markets are showing these trends more clearly and the revolution of e-Commerce and Internet banking has created a world market that demands constant monitoring for the smallest mistake can result in disastrous consequences.

Yet it is surprising that in an industry where precision and timing is imperative, and the success of institutions rests on the success of their projects, that IT projects are have the highest failure rate.

According to the Standish Group (1994), only 16.2% of their IT projects were “project successful” (software projects that are completed on-time and on-budget among American companies and governments), 52.7% were “project challenged” (they were completed and operational but over-budget, over the time estimate, and offers fewer features and functions than originally scheduled), and 31.1% were “project impaired” (or cancelled). Why are these projects failing? Some contend that it is a lack of input from the user-end. Without a complete understand of what the client wants, and communication of this throughout the project life cycle it is highly unlikely that the end product will meet any expectations. Some of the main points about why IT projects fail are:

  • Functional: system does not perform needed tasks (correctly)
  • Users resist new system
  • Management resists new system
  • Cost overrun
  • Delays and Technical problems: system does not work

In stark contrast Bohlman and Deal maintain that the reasons why IT projects can work are:

  • User involvement
  • Management support
  • Skilled, experienced project managers
  • Clear requirements statement
  • Comprehensive work plan
  • Sound development methodology
  • Prototyping
  • Extensive Testing

What is not surprising, however, is that the free access to information and the high levels of communications (for which we can thank the internet) are resulting in many new theories arising in response to traditional business strategies. For years market forces were understood and even defined by theories like those of Michael Porter. The Internet has certainly been good for expanding our understanding of culture, society, economies, development and foreign countries.

In today’s discussion we are going to address a new business strategy, which will change the way in which communication in organisations is viewed. The authors are Lee Bohlman and Terry Deal and they created Reframing Organisations. We believe that by reframing financial organisations according to Bohlman and Deals theory the success rate financial IT projects can be improved.


Reframing Organisations

What are frames though? Frames are the ‘lens’ by which we see and order the world.  They may highlight attractive features and filter out the things we do not want to see. We need frames to help us make sense of the world since they assist us in ordering experience and guiding action.  It is then obvious that looking at a situation through a narrow frame or only selected frames may result in the wrong action being taken.

Older management techniques employed a semblance of a single frame e.g. Scientific Management involved Heuristic logic (the one best way).  The weakness here is that other possibilities are ignored and it usually presents a barrier to change that may result in improvement.  Binary Logic, which says that there is a choice between task-centred or relationship centred management implied that people had to choose between one and the other (no place for a mix of the two).  Dialectic logic supports the idea that one needs to discuss the various options and eliminate those that are unsuitable and invariably make a binary choice between management methods.

Bohlman and Deal’s Theory  (Bohlman and Deal, 1991) employs Trialectic Logic which seeks to employ a sense of wholeness which emerges from at least three sets of possible relationships among factors.  This is in contrast to the one or two factor logics mentioned previously.  The three or more factors of the trialectic are separate independent realities with the challenge being to hold all the factors in play in balance and view them as a whole.

Bohlman and Deal use 4 frames or lenses to perceive, explain and diagnose organisations.  Each frame has its own image of reality.  The theory suggests that to be an effective leader, the manager should be flexible and adaptable enough to use all 4 frames and become a multi-framing thinker, rather than relying on only one or two frames for looking at the world.

Whilst businesses may have previously been managed using a structural or political frame, the multi-framing technique has advocated that the HR frames and symbolic frames cannot be ignored if one is to successfully manage a business and its people.

The symbolic frame

The symbolic frame, drawing on social and cultural anthropology, abandons the assumptions of rationality that appear in other frames. It treats organisations as tribes, theatres or carnivals. In this view, organisations are cultures that are propelled more by rituals, ceremonies, stories, heroes and myths rather than by rules, policies and managerial authority.

The use of the symbolic frame in communication

Whilst an ineffective leader using this frame may be thought of as a fanatical fool, whose leadership process is a mirage working in a cult-like culture. This is frame and corporate-culture has worked for companies like Disney and Wal-Mart (Collins and Porras, 1995). The difference here though was that these companies had a core ideology that they religiously followed. The culture assisted in reaching the company’s goals, which were continuously and tirelessly communicated to the staff.

Corporate culture may be regarded as a set of values that defines for members what the firm stands for, how it functions, and what it considers important. Culture is shaped by such things as: the organisations mission statement, symbols, heroes, legends, past successes and failures and shared experiences.  A strong well-managed culture can be a major contributor to the organisation’s success. (Laxton, 2000)

The implementation of a financial IT system may well be part of an organisation’s wider vision. This wider vision is often not communicated to staff, but is kept a “trade secret” by the select few in the upper echelons of the organisation. Choosing a symbol or logo, possibly by inviting ideas from all players, to define the vision may contribute to the sharing of common attitudes, values and beliefs. Similarly, communication of the project vision will complement the wider vision, and enable all involved to identify with the common goals.  It is essential that all players know exactly what they are striving for.

Another important aspect of ensuring the success of financial IT projects is the element of adequate training. Without training and ample opportunity to practice new tasks, users feel thrown in at the deep end. It is essential that users get a feel for what they will be doing prior to the go-live date.  The training sessions may be used as a platform to re-iterate the goals, and the manner in which the users knowledge of the system will assist in making the project successful.

The perfect implementation will still be considered a failure if users have not been empowered by the development of skills to use the financial system. Training in the symbolic culture may be customised and made unique to the organisation, informal and interactive, new ideas and input encouraged providing flexibility and creativity. Users who are comfortable with new procedures will be more likely to support the changes, contributing to user-buy in – a vital success factor for these projects.

All too often a decision is taken to implement a new financial system without reference to the users of the system. This leads to the system being used in old ways, and little, if any, benefit is derived from the change. Rituals, such as regular workshops, to identify and meet user requirements, as well as to provide comfort and support during the change and decision making process may well make the difference between success and failure.

We have attempted to illustrate that the problems contributing to the failure of Financial IT projects may not simply be solved by enforcing control (structural frame), paying people more (HR frame) or negotiation (political frame). Some consideration has to be given to the corporate culture (symbolic frame) and the type of communication channels that this culture allows. Once these are fully understood, steps may be taken to minimize the negative effects and ensure a successful project.

In summary then, effective leadership using the symbolic frame will display the following characteristics:

  • The vision of the organisation is communicated with others
  • Strong relationships are built around shared attitudes, values and beliefs.
  • Experiences in which people are involved are interpreted.
  • Like to tell stories about things that happen at work.
  • The meaning of events is important
  • When faced with conflict or serious problems, they try to change the culture of the organisation.
  • Ideas are tried out in groups


Bohlman, L & T Deal  (1991): Reframing Organisations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership.  San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Collins, J C  & J I Porras (1995): Built to Last, Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. Century: London.

Enterprise Careers. (1998): May 04. vol. 20, iss. 18, pg: 98. 

Knights, D & H Willmott  (2000): The Re-engineering Revolution, Critical Studies of Corporate Change. Sage: London.

Laxton, D M  (2000): Management Theory and Practice. (

Robbins, S  (1998): Organisational Behaviour, 8th Edition. Prentice Hall: U.S.A

Internet References (


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DBA, MBL, MBA, BTech Academic Team Leader and Senior Lecturer Regenesys Business School


DBA, MBL, MBA, BTech Academic Team Leader and Senior Lecturer Regenesys Business School

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