Much to learn from the Norwegian Public Secto

Change in the administration of the parental allowance

Image: NAV, the Norwegian Labor and Welfare Administration, is on Facebook, which allows the agency to quickly answer general questions about social benefits. The authority recently changed its way of working in the middle of implementing a new software solution for paying parental allowance. The processing of an application for parental allowance now takes only a few seconds and can mostly be processed automatically.
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Source: The Norwegian Labor and Welfare Administration

Major delays, costly overruns and major user dissatisfaction have often characterized the launch of new software solutions.

The industry has learned, but there is still room for greater improvement, says Torgeir Dingsøyr, a professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).

He has researched what happened when the NAV (Norwegian Labor and Welfare Administration) changed the way it worked while implementing a new software solution for paying parental benefits.

From waterfall to evolution

The old waterfall method in software development was a linear, step-by-step process.

First, the project requirements were fully defined, followed by key design and architecture decisions, extensive testing, and finally, later on, delivery to the customer. Each step was dependent on the previous ones.

“The waterfall method involves unnecessary waiting and great risk. The sequential stages of the model require the person passing one stage to explain what happened to the next. Extensive documentation is often required. Not an easy task. Experience shows that project staff working in different phases don’t even sit together over lunch,” says Dingsøyr, who works at NTNU’s Department of Informatics.

“Even with extensive documentation, the process can turn into a whisper game in practice. The original message can be completely derailed,” he said.

Small groups

“Another common problem is that the IT team sits waiting for decisions in other parts of the organization. Today, the software industry has largely moved away from the waterfall model towards more flexible agile methods,” says the professor.

Agile methods were developed in IT projects as an answer to the crisis in the industry. Most people thought these methods only worked for small, co-located groups building a small software product, but today they are used in large IT projects as well.

NAV success

The professor believes that most organizations today are using what he calls large-scale, first-generation Agile methodologies for large IT projects.

When NAV started to create a computer system to simplify parental benefit processing in 2016, they decided on a variant of the first generation agile method.

In the middle of the project, NAV switched to the second-generation agile method despite the tough deadline.

The project was completed on time and on budget – and with resounding success.

The processing time for applying for parental allowance was reduced from months to seconds, and 99.8 percent of the applications were processed in self-service.

In 2019, NAV basked in the splendor of the Annual Digitization Awards ceremony in Norway.

Management – ​​​​a supporting function

“In contrast to the agile method of the first generation, the second generation version puts the product at the center right from the start. The work is done in cross-functional teams with much more freedom.”

Overlapping competences within the group mean that the clarification takes place continuously instead of in large meetings that unnecessarily take up time and resources.

“Less time is spent on administration and coordination and more time on product development. Management needs to ensure they are providing direction for what the groups should be doing – and that productivity is high. Management is also becoming more of a support function for professional work. The working groups are freed from the straitjacket of successive phases,” says Dingsøyr.

Test immediately – learn while doing it

Instead of creating a detailed and comprehensive requirements process with user participation at the beginning of a project, developers start with the most important things and let users provide immediate feedback on what has proven to be more effective.

“Too little attention has been paid to ease of use and the time required to learn new systems. Interacting with users early on can help developers quickly understand what’s important about the system and what the customer really wants. This allows developers to more effectively prioritize what should be included in terms of functionality,” says Dingsøyr.

“First you try out a simple solution and then expand if necessary. Second generation methods facilitate flexibility and learning along the way,” says Dingsøyr.

Effective coordination between groups is key

Coordination is a challenge in large projects when multiple groups are working to create a computer system and there are many dependencies between tasks.

The risk is that changes made by one person cause unexpected problems for someone in another group. International studies show that work has stopped on projects where coordination between groups is problematic.

“The study of the parental support project is important because it shows how the project managed to coordinate work more efficiently using a second-generation method,” says Dingsøyr.

Avoid Big Bang launches!

The professor thinks waiting for a big launch is a waste of time:

“A big bang launch is really risky. Technical issues can be difficult to detect before the system is deployed,” he says.

And for users, it’s difficult to know what the new systems will look like before they see how the new system will work in tandem with other systems they use.

It’s better to create something, test it right away, present it – and maybe even put it into operation in order to gradually make it available to more users.

The professor says that the streaming service Spotify has several groups working on features for the app. New versions are first tested internally and then among multiple test users before being released on a large scale.

“Thanks to cloud solutions, sending out new versions has become much easier, and different users can get different versions. With the new technology and the new methods, we gain completely different possibilities.”

Others want to learn

Agile development methodologies are not only used by a few large IT companies.

More and more industries are going digital. Tesla thinks like a software company and has challenged the entire auto industry. A modern car can have up to 100 million lines of software code.

“For example, I see Volvo Cars introducing large-scale agile software development. Project management shows great interest in developments in the IT industry and in areas such as management,” says Dingsøyr.

He believes that Norway and the other Nordic countries are leaders in software development methods. Several environments are now ripe for second-generation methods after many years of debate about software development practice.

“The study conducted as part of the Parental Assistance project is the first to describe a transition to the large-scale, second-generation agile development methodology during the implementation of a large IT project, and it shows how the transition led to more effective coordination practices,” says Dingsøyr.

Relation: Dingsøyr, T., Bjørnson, FO, Schrof, J. et al. An illustrative longitudinal case study of coordination in a very large development program: The implications of moving from a large-scale first-generation to a second-generation agile development methodology. Empir Software Eng 28, 1 (2023).

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