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Global Development Institute

Failure, Success and Improvisation of Information Systems Projects in Developing Countries

Richard Heeks


Most information systems - including current ICT projects - in developing countries fail either totally or partially. This paper develops a model which explains those high rates of failure. The model is based on the notion of design-reality gaps: the match or mismatch between IS designs and local user reality. It helps identify three high risk archetypes that affect IS projects in developing countries: country context gaps, 'hard-soft' gaps and private-public gaps. The model explains the ways in which these gaps can be reduced through local improvisations in developing countries. It therefore provides guidance on generic ways in which the success rates of IS projects in developing countries can be increased.

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Educator's guide

Synopsis questions

  1. Characterise the nature and extent of information systems success and failure in developing countries. [part A]
  2. Why - according to this paper - do developing country information systems succeed or fail? [parts B & C]
  3. What are the archetypal design-reality gaps? Why do they arise? [part C]
  4. What can be done to increase the success rate of developing country information systems? [part D] 

Development questions

  1. Whose design and whose reality does the creation of design-reality gaps encompass?
  2. Are the seven ITPOSMO dimensions truly 'necessary and sufficient' to explain information systems change in developing country organisations?
  3. Identify a fairly detailed information systems case study from a developing country. Apply the ITPOSMO/design-reality model. Does the model help to explain success or failure of this IS?
  4. Can you envisage other archetypal design-reality gaps that might affect the domain of information systems in developing countries?
  5. Identify other explanations for information systems success and failure. How do they compare with the model presented in this paper?
  6. Identify other recommendations for increasing IS success rates or decreasing IS failure rates. How do they compare with the recommendations presented in this paper?
  7. If you are familiar with an organisation in a developing country, which, if any, of the part D recommendations would be feasible and desirable in that organisation?
  8. What can the North learn from the IS experiences of the South?