Lance B. Eliot, Feature Editor, Eliot & Associates
Project Management: I.S. Needs It
by Lance Eliot, Eliot & Associates
Top-notch I.S. professionals know that the success or failure of the I.S. function is inevitably shaped by the success or failure of individual projects. Sadly, many I.S. groups do a poor job of managing projects.
In the early years of predominantly large-scale system development projects, the role of project management was particularly obvious■multimillion dollar efforts were launched to construct mammoth airline reservation systems, manufacturing control systems, accounting systems, and other multi-year, multi-person efforts. Frequently, I.S. lived or died by the success or failure of a single project.
In the 1990's, many I.S. groups have lost sight of the importance of project management due to the splintering of projects into smaller and smaller pieces. (Indeed, many chief information officers insist that no project can exceed six months in length!) I.S. staff are frequently thrown into a project without any sense of project direction or detailed schedule. I.S. managers often resort to simple exhortations of "Make it work, and get it done on time," and trust that such sage advice will be enough project management oversight to get the job done.
As a result, contemporary I.S. groups are killed by numerous "small-scale" failures that eventually accumulate into an overall sense of total failure. It's the proverbial death by a thousand cuts.
Becoming Project Management Proficient
As a consultant, I have evaluated numerous I.S. groups to help determine why they are so often over-budget and late on delivering systems to their customers. Usually, the answer is a lack of fundamental project management skills among the I.S. staff, I.S. management, and customers of I.S. Projects are allowed to start-up without focus and steam forward like a locomotive headed for a train wreck (among many project management failings).
Note that I include the customer of I.S. as sharing some blame in the failure of I.S.-related projects. This might seem surprising to many I.S. specialists because the normal focus of blame is on the shoulders of I.S. alone. In my view, the customers of I.S. must become somewhat proficient in project management fundamentals in order to participate as an active partner in the development of systems. Without a sufficient level of understanding about the nature of projects, the customers can unwittingly misdirect even the best I.S. led efforts and help drive a project into the ground.
In the training course on project management that I conduct, I structure the course to continually bring up the need to think about projects from each stakeholder's perspective. Thus, if an I.S. staff member attends the class, they have an appreciation for their role, the role of managers, and the role of the customer. If an I.S. manager attends, they gain an appreciation for the staff workers and the customer. And, for the customer, they become aware of the process being undertaken by I.S. in an effort to produce their desired system.
The result of the training is a set of potential I.S. project participants that have a common understanding of the project process, share an understanding of the terminology and artifacts of project management (such as Gantt charts, PERT, etc.), and commonly understand what each must do to make sure that a project succeeds. They are ready to talk-the-talk and walk-the-walk.
Some Key Tips on Project Management
Here are some important tips about I.S. project management.
Do not confuse tools with techniques. Many CIOs tell me that they already have "taken care" of project management within the I.S. ranks because they have widely distributed a project management tool, such as Microsoft Project. Upon close examination, I usually discover that the I.S. ranks do not use the tool, usually do not understand how and when to use the tool, and worse still, do not possess the project management techniques that must be comprehended to even consider using such a tool.
Get training on techniques.
What is a project plan? How can you estimate the size of a project? Should quality control be a part of a project? How can a team be managed? All of these questions deal with the techniques of project management. Do not assume that your I.S. group miraculously knows the answers to these questions■analyze the project management strengths and weaknesses of your I.S. group, and train them to overcome their weaknesses.
Integrate the techniques with the tools.
Be cautious if using an off-the-shelf training course on project management. The techniques of project management must be integrated with the tools of project management. Thus, if you have chosen - Microsoft Project, make sure that the training materials on the techniques of project management are illustrated via Microsoft Project. I've seen much confusion when a techniques course omitted illustrations of the tool (forcing the attendees to figure out on their own how to do so), or used a different tool that wasn't the chosen standard in the I.S. shop (forcing the attendees to learn a tool■but not the tool they will actually use).
Deal with reality.
Anyone who has been in I.S. for even the briefest period of time has undoubtedly experienced some gruesome project management horrors. If you provide simplistic project management training to I.S. staff, training that assumes an idealized world in which requirements are readily determined and projects meet their schedules, they will reject the training as lacking in reality (they're right!). Make sure that any training provided covers the truth about projects, and offers solutions to either overcome or prevent project horrors.
Make project management a valued skill. If you embark upon improving the project management skills of your I.S. group, make sure that you simultaneously adjust the reward systems within the I.S. function to acknowledge and reward the skills enhancements. Job descriptions should include the need for proficiency in project management skills, and you may wish to offer a certificate and a graduated series of training courses on project management (ranging from fundamentals, intermediate, and to advanced levels) for the entire I.S. group.
The preceding comments should help more I.S. groups improve their project management capabilities. If you have any project management questions, project management anecdotes, or need help on improving your organization's project management skills, please contact me.
Dr. Lance Eliot