Bridging the project management gap

Three years ago David Barrett realized there was a void in the Canadian IT industry. With more and more failed systems projects, businesses were seeking out individuals with strong project management skills.

The problem was, there were none.

“Three or five years ago, project management was all about software. All you needed to do was buy a whole bunch of scheduling tools and you would have project management, but [businesses] started to realize it wasn’t working. All they were doing was buying the software and it was sitting on the shelf collecting dust,” Barrett said.

“Then they started putting people through maybe a couple of days of training programs and really that was just wetting people’s whistles. It wasn’t doing the trick.”

Enter Barrett. The 43-year-old president and founder of Solutions Network Inc. in Mississauga, Ont., left his corporate sales position at Symantec Corp. to bridge the gap between individuals and organizations looking for project management solutions.

Solutions Network Inc. now includes Project Management Recruiting Services, Project Management Symposium and Workshops, a quarterly newsletter called Project Times and the creation of the Academy for Project Management, now owned by the York University Schulich School of Business in Toronto, where Barrett acts as program director. All are devoted to one thing: project management.

Three years ago, the gap was huge. “It wasn’t the traditional businesses that have understood project management for years…it’s the new industries that are just now understanding that the projects are getting so large and so critical… they can’t afford not to deliver on time, on budget and within scope,” Barrett said.

Today, the gap is smaller, but continues to be a major source of concern and probably will be post-Y2K, Barrett said, since many projects have been stalled or completely neglected until the century bug is resolved.

The constant challenge, however, is finding the right people. This means that sometimes the solution has to come from within, Barrett said.

“Because they are having such a struggle to find people, we’re looking for introductory level people that are already inside their organization…if our clients aren’t willing to grow internally and all they’re willing to do is buy externally, they’re not going to find enough people,” he said.

Using assessment tools, Barrett works with clients to identify potential project managers within the organization and helps lead them toward the proper training.

Unfortunately, the most important attribute to look for is something that cannot be taught. “There’s nothing in a project manager’s life more important than their people skills…the ability to manage and lead. We can teach you how to schedule, to assess risk, how to run a meeting, but in the end if you can’t manage people you will never be a project manager,” he explained.

Anne McKay, education business analyst for Toronto-based Manulife Financial, who has worked in conjunction with Solutions Network, agreed. “You can know the tools and you can know what needs to be done, but if you don’t communicate it to the rest of the team then you’re sort of on a solo platform,” she said.

When it comes to the technical side of things, Barrett said, “you need to have the technical strength to be able to question schedules or time estimates and budgets. You need to be able to hold up your own in the middle of a meeting.”

McKay, who believes the need for good project management training is “very high,” said when looking at project managers the obvious factor is that individuals can bring in a project on time and on budget. In addition, however, they need to know “the strategic direction of where they want to head and have some consistent methodology and tools.”

But even if qualified individuals exist, there’s still the challenge of matching them with an organization and corporate culture.

According to Barrett, “we look at competency or we look at suitability to the task. When the big guns are looking and they’re willing to pay well for the right person, we’re looking strictly at competency. What projects have you managed? How big were they? Exactly what did you do? In those cases we’re really trying to match the experience with the task at hand,” he said.

This means not just looking at successes, but failures as well. In other words, taking a look at “who’s shirts have been ripped a bit and who are willing to admit it,” Barrett explained.