Short on skills

The big push to roll-out — everyone has a story, whether it’s the time the IT department stayed up 48 hours living on donuts, or the time the software developers worked two weeks straight without leaving the office. These tales are the norm in the business and accepted as inevitabilities. But a new

report shows that such project management mishaps are costly, avoidable and, over time, extremely harmful to a company’s portfolio.

“”You can treat people that way 10 out of 52 weeks,”” says Carole Macpherson, a vice-president with Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group Inc. “”But not 52 weeks out of 52. It creates a negative byproduct.””

Macpherson is the lead author of the Meta Group Inc.’s recently released Best Practices in Project Estimation and Performance Management. The 250-page document examines issues surrounding project management strategies. Nearly 80 per cent of IT organizations polled told the report’s researchers that a lack of enterprise project management capabilities was a key work force issue facing their companies.

“”Projects are not islands,”” says Macpherson. “”You need to integrate project management into the enterprise environment, asset management, infrastructure planning and software development.””

The report argues that companies must discard the traditional management-by-objective style, which often fails to create project management consistency. In the management-by-objective model, a company sets an annual goal (for example, a three per cent increase in sales) and tries to meet it. If the goal is achieved, the target is raised the next year.

“”The objective-based approach doesn’t tell me how to achieve the goal,”” observes Macpherson. “”It doesn’t allow for inspection of the process and it doesn’t allow for intervention.””

The Meta Group report argues that companies should employ a management-by-project approach. In this model, progress is charted and efforts that appear to be stalled can be halted. The management-by-project approach does not deem this failure. After all, the data and lessons learned from an effort that does not pan out can be useful in the company’s overall growth.

“”It is the project manager’s responsibility to make sure value is delivered to the organization,”” Macpherson says. “”In the management-by-project style you can stop, change directions and change strategy.””

In the mid-1990s, project management was often an after-thought.

“”In the industry, especially on the software development side, we were moving so fast, no one put the proper structures in place,”” recalls David Barrett, president of Solutions Network and director of the Academy for Project Management at Schulich School of Business at York University. “”No one stood back and said, ‘What do we need to do here?’ It was just, ‘What do you need?’ and then paint the screen. We weren’t business people. We were just techies and we just missed it.””

Barrett is one of Canada’s leading authorities on project management and he believes there is an increase in the awareness about the benefits of a clear-headed approach. The best way for companies to build project managers, he maintains, is to look inside for promising candidates.

“”You have to come from the industry,”” Barrett says. “”You have to have taken your lumps.””

Under the Solutions Network umbrella, Barrett offers masters certificates in project management in 10 Canadian cities. The program provides two to three days of intensive training each month for four months. Barrett says this allows students “”to practice what they are being taught immediately and absorb it.”” Last year his program graduated 750 students.

Training is crucial, but Macpherson says it is only one part of the problem. IT organizations must tackle project management issues on the higher management level. She advocates the creation of “”enterprise program management offices,”” which can act as liaisons between the tech side and the business side (see the Sept. 5

issue of Computing Canada for a feature report on how to set up a project management office). These offices give access to resource data to project managers and senior corporate officers.

“”They provide a corporate memory,”” she says. “”Often, once a project is completed, it is forgotten. That is valuable data lost.””

IT companies must also take greater care when doing project estimation.

“”The state of project cost estimation is abysmal,”” says Macpherson. “”A lot of estimates rely on expert opinion but in the case of a new project, in say biometric security, internal expert opinion is not going to give a company what it needs. An estimate could be plus or minus one hundred per cent.”” Along with expert opinion, she argues, companies should consider parametric estimates and polling vendors for feedback.

While most in the IT world agree that project management is a crucial element of any successful initiative, the Meta Group report reveals there is still a gap between the suits and the techies.

“”Nearly 80 per cent of the CIOs we interviewed said the lack of project management skills was going to rear up and bite them,”” says Macpherson. “”But the project managers I talk to say, ‘No, we’re cool.'””

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