IT projects should align with corporate plan

One has to wonder at times why any sane person would want to lead an IT project. It seems the majority of projects are deemed failures, even if they are finally implemented. To add insult to injury, project leaders need the patience of Job, are often ultimately responsible for the success of a project, yet have little authority to twist arms when needed.

At a recent ProjectWorld conference in Toronto, Ric Irving, associate professor at the Schulich School of Business at Toronto’s York University, spoke about the need to link IT projects closely to a strategic business plan. But even Irving admits this is no easy task, since many companies have no strategic plan or – if they do have one – it is short-sighted.

Irving relayed a story about his involvement with a major financial institution which never mentioned IT as an enabling technology in its strategic plan. For a major bank to have great strategic plans without bringing in IT for infrastructure is a big oversight, he said. “But it happens.”

It is therefore the responsibility of IT project managers to tie the IT project to the strategic plan (assuming there is one) since many of those higher on the food chain lack the expertise to do so. In fact an Athabasca University/CIO Canada survey found only 38 per cent of senior management understands how IT fits with the corporate strategic plan.

Irving cited additional statistics from the Athabasca survey that might induce the average project manager to throw in the towel. Sixty per cent of CIOs said they only invest in IT projects with demonstrable business value, yet almost half admit it is difficult to assess the business value of IT projects.

While these sorts of attitudes and statistics are often stacked against IT projects, they can be overcome, Irving said. IT infrastructure projects are often unable to demonstrate strict ROI, so Irving likes to use an earthquake analogy. Spending funds on infrastructure is insurance against system failure in the future, he said. Though worse-case scenarios are not always needed to get senior managers on board, educating them about the value of an IT project is extremely important for a project’s success.

Additionally, it is necessary to have good project filtering in place to ensure those projects that are chosen have the ability to relate and work with the overall corporate strategic plan, Irving said.

Though it may seem like the ultimate no-brainer, getting stakeholders in on the process is of paramount importance. Even when it is done it is often slipshod. Stakeholder input has to be real.

Irving recalled past experiences at a university which installed a new student information system. Technically it was fine, except it took end users (those who actually entered the student information into the system) two hours to enter the data for one student. Then IT had the temerity to tell the users the problem was due to their lack of understanding of the technology.

The retrofit added six months, additional expense and a great deal of pain to the project. The lesson? Know who all of the stakeholders are and treat them with respect.

Flawed assumptions

Project managers are often led to believe there are universal best practices. There aren’t.

“Many IT projects still involve just as much art as science,” Irving said. “So don’t go for the idea of universal best practices.”

Not surprisingly, the key to a successful project lies with those involved – not necessarily with the technology being installed. There are very few projects which fail technically, he said. “[So] don’t rely on technologies, rely on the capabilities of the people (involved).”

One of the biggest beefs from those involved in IT projects is lack of recognition for a job well done. Project leaders need to be able to motivate those involved – and recognizing this is a key to success. Irving goes so far as to tell people working on his university projects that if mistakes are made he’ll take the blame, yet if people do a good job, he’ll give them credit.

Acting like a leader never hurts. “Don’t ever underestimate the value (of recognition), it costs you nothing and it is as cheap as dirt,” he said. “The non-monetary [rewards] are often way more effective than the monetary ones.”

On a final note, Irving stressed that an effective project manager has to be on top of all aspects of the project. Periodic review meetings, the life line of many IT projects, often turn into ambushes for ill-informed and unprepared project managers. “You should never be surprised (by a question) in one of these meetings.”