Survey: 2008 will be tough for IT project managers

According to a recent Computerworld poll, it’s going to be a tough year for IT project managers. Project management has always earned a high ranking on the annual list of IT managers’ worries, but in the first-half of the 2008 Vital Signs survey, it took the No. 1 spot.

IT managers cite a variety of reasons for their escalating concern, including growing globalization, IT budget increases, budget decreases, an overall increase in the complexity of projects, and end users who are simply demanding more.

But the good news, a number of them say, is that they have found strategies and tactics for dealing with the age-old difficulty of bringing in projects on time and within budget while keeping end-user complaints under control.

The loosening of the IT purse strings that began a couple of years ago will continue to be a double-edged sword in 2008. “Budgets lag reality in IT,” says Paul Glen, an IT management consultant and a Computerworld columnist. “You have a couple of bad years, and suddenly IT stops doing projects. Now we are a year or two into doing projects again, and we are suddenly realizing, ‘Oh, these aren’t going so well.'”

And Gopal Kapur, president of the Center for Project Management in San Ramon, Calif., says companies have pretty much picked the low-hanging IT fruit and are starting on bigger, more complex projects.

“Bigger projects carry higher risk,” he points out. “The absolute complexity is higher, but the absolute skills are not higher, so the gap is large. You can’t pick the higher fruit if your ladder is not strong.”

John Bruggeman, IT director at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, has a short ladder. He might be counted among the lucky for having recently received several large gifts earmarked for IT projects, but the gifts didn’t provide for the hiring of additional staffers to do the projects.

The initiatives include implementation of a large student information system (SIS), a facility renovation that includes IT infrastructure upgrades, and deployment of classroom videoconferencing across four campuses. “I’ve been in maintenance mode the past five years,” Bruggeman says, “and to have these three big projects tossed on the plate has really created a time crunch.”

When you have more money than people, look to vendors to help out, especially with project management, Bruggeman suggests. He says he received two bids for the SIS. One came from a vendor that verbally promised to manage the project but subsequently refused to put that promise into the contract. The winning vendor was willing to guarantee that it would manage the project – and didn’t even charge extra for the service, he says.

Deconstructing Global Projects

Increased globalization is contributing to the complexity of projects and of project management, says Mark Showers, CIO at St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. “We have finally gotten away from doing a lot of silo projects,” he says. “For example, Monsanto is on a single instance of SAP, and you typically have people from all around the world working on a project.”

For large projects – typically, more than US$5 million – that are geographically distributed, the $8.5 billion agricultural biotechnology firm has found a project management innovation that Showers calls “three-headed leadership.” The troika consists of a business manager from the country, acquired firm or business unit that will be the primary user of a new system; an enterprise corporate manager from Monsanto’s St. Louis headquarters; and an IT manager associated with the user country, acquisition or business unit.

The arrangement brings more leadership to bear and more “ownership – more skin in the game,” Showers says. He says it reflects a realization that “IT projects” are rarely only about IT anymore. “Projects rarely fail because of technology,” he notes.

As CIO at Wall Homes Inc. in Arlington, Texas, Andrew Brimberry has to stretch a lean staff. He says one way to streamline internal communication and take some of the burden off of project managers at the small, recently formed home construction firm is to have programmers sit in on requirements definition meetings with end users.

“That does take time away from coding, but [when coders] understand directly from the user what the project goals are, they do a much better job,” he says. “It’s a sacrifice that has always paid off for us.”

A deep understanding of the business is vital for IT at Wall Homes, Brimberry says, because construction managers in each major city have the right to manage their work as they see fit. For that reason, it’s important for systems to be readily adaptable to changing and sometimes conflicting requirements, he says.

Managing Projects on a Budget

While IT managers at companies facing robust growth in 2008 are likely to be challenged by stepped-up demand for projects, those experiencing financial uncertainty or retrenchment have a different sort of problem, says Danny Siegel, director of worldwide technology engineering at Pfizer Inc. The New York-based pharmaceutical company’s sales have been flat for four years, and it has seen recent steep declines in the sales of some of its major drugs.

The problem at such times is that the business units that use IT have cut staff and are facing budget squeezes too, so they are less able to provide vital support for IT projects, Siegel says. “So the project manager goes to the customer groups and says, ‘Help me define what we are trying to do,’ and the customer group says, ‘Thanks for asking, but we have no people.'”

Still, Pfizer has managed to sidestep a shortage in project management support by outsourcing most of its IT. What was once project management has morphed into vendor management, Siegel says. The job of internal IT managers has increasingly become one of setting standards and ensuring consistency and repeatability across projects.

“Now it’s a matter of saying, ‘Here are the tools, here are the platforms; go make it happen,'” Siegel says. “We have stopped managing our vendors at a project level. We have started certifying them at a vendor level, saying, ‘We are going to audit you, but we are not signing statements of work that say, for example, that over the next six weeks you are going to deliver the following three things.’ “

Managing IT projects has never been easy, but a company has an advantage when rigorous project management principles already pervade its operating units, as is the case at PCL Constructors Inc. in Edmonton, Alberta. The basics of budgeting, planning, scheduling, workflow tracking and cost control are ingrained in the work practices of the people constructing bridges, buildings and airports at PCL, says Brian Ranger, the company’s general manager for systems and technologies.

PCL didn’t always have strong IT project management, Ranger says, but the rest of the company came to demand it. “Our business [managers] used to be frustrated that they couldn’t hold us accountable to schedule and budget,” he says. “But over the past two years, IT has gotten the project management religion and now works with users on terms they understand. We are trying to operate like the business.”

To help develop better project managers, Ranger dispatched “key lieutenants” to the Project Management Institute (PMI) to take courses that would lead to Project Management Professional certification, a step that costs about $6,000 per person. “It’s expensive, but well worth it,” he says.

But all IT staffers get some PMI training – at least enough to introduce project management concepts, which apply to both construction projects and IT projects, Ranger says. “I want everyone to understand these principles and how they work so they can be part of them,” he explains.

But IT consultant Glen cautions against assuming that project management techniques that work in largely mechanical arenas, such as construction and manufacturing, can be readily applied to IT. “IT project management is part science and part art,” he says. “But we, as engineers, have the bias that we can engineer solutions to fundamentally human problems.”

Glen offers this advice to project managers: “Look for flexible minds, and beware of people who believe they know the answer.”
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