The art of project management

The art of project management has never been an easy one for most companies to master. Most research into the area reveals that only a small fraction of projects actually come in on time and on budget.

And if the major trends in this area pointed out by University of Waterloo professor Peter Carr hold true, the need for more effective project management will only become more imperative in the years ahead. Carr, director for management of technology for Waterloo’s online Masters of Management Science program, sees three key trends developing in the project management field.

First, the projects themselves are getting bigger and bigger, in terms of their scale, the amount they cost and the time they take to complete. “The success (of them) is becoming more strategically important to organizations, who put a lot of money into an [enterprise resource planning] implementation, for example. If that fails, it can have serious implications and can take the whole organization down.”

The second trend, Carr asserts, is the emergence of new project management models. He is particularly intrigued by the models in which collaboration is occurring as the project proceeds between different parties, and which is occurring simultaneously. He points to the example set by many Japanese outfits in achieving a lean, efficient process.

“[They] can much more quickly get a new model of car into production than an American or Canadian manufacturer,” he says. “That’s partly because the way they manage the project of designing and then getting ready for the production of a new car is much faster.

They do that by overlapping on project stages by things happening simultaneously, and by good communication among the groups involved.” Finally, the trend of internationalization is taking place in the project management sphere, Carr says, as operations increasingly take on a global nature. The implications for those looking to carry out projects are many, Carr points out.

“Things like where the elements are going to be done offshore…to India and elsewhere is becoming more common. I think that’s leading to the need for projects to be more formally and strictly controlled,” he says. “When you are working with someone who is that far away and from another culture, [project managers] need to make sure the specifications are well laid down, and that they are identifying problems as they occur, rather (than) when the whole project is finished.”

This new, global reality means that project managers must work more closely with their widely distributed staff, and using technology, the professor says, will allow them to do that.

The soft side With such new realities affecting the art of project management, IT managers are having to adjust their own place within that picture. One of the most notable ways in which this is happening is the management of not just the project, but of the many stakeholders that are a part of it. This is one element that makes the management of projects more of a challenge today, Carr says.

“Both the internal development and the relationships with all the stakeholders (are contributing factors),” Carr says. “IT managers aren’t always quite so good at doing that. We hear the traditional criticism that things are built because they are what the IT people want to build, as opposed to things being developed in line with strategic business needs. The scale of these projects is causing (people management skills) to have more focus today.” Carr adds that the education curricula around project management does not always reflect the need for soft skills. “It’s quite normal for project management to be taught purely about the project management processes or techniques as opposed to the people side of it, how you manage change effectively and handle the relationships with the rest of the organization,” he says.

A project manager can take a hard approach but it’s all about soft skills, he says, and quite frequently project managers aren’t taught that when they’re initially trained. “I think that’s a common criticism, but in the work I’m doing here at Waterloo, I’m trying to bring these together and teach it effectively.”

Carr’s efforts to do so are displayed quite clearly by an elective course he has developed in conjunction with NetHope, a non-profit IT consortium of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that enables them to use technology to better help people living in developing countries. Some of the projects NetHope has been involved with include the deployment of mobile satellite equipment for relief workers and homeless victims of the December 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran, and the installation of satellite communication equipment for HIV/AIDS workers carrying out public health education programs in Uganda.

“I teach the students about project management and at the same time they work on a live project for NetHope,” says Carr.

The students work online and are dispersed throughout the world, with one in China, another in Ireland and others throughout Canada. Since the course’s launch in September, the students have been conducting a survey of project management within the NetHope organizations. “This is what they will use to get a broad sense of what’s going on now and to identify the areas they should be focusing on.”

Ongoing process

Despite the growing sophistication of the art of project management, many organizations still approach the process with less planning than they potentially could, Carr says.

“There are still plenty of large organizations that don’t have that focus, where projects are still done ad hoc, where they aren’t done as professionally as they could be, and where they would benefit from taking a more professional approach. There’s still lots of bad project management going on.” Nevertheless, Carr likes the fact that the process, as carried out in many organizations, is evolving into a more concrete aspect of running a business.

“I would like to think [the success rate] is getting better. We’re certainly seeing the use of project management techniques more and more,” he says, adding that “they are certainly being done much more professionally now.” For Carr, the two main trends that look set to characterize project management’s future are the ability to carry out projects more quickly and using methodologies to make that happen.

“But it’s also the impact of technology and being able to collaborate globally by using collaboration technologies and the ways in which these two things interact,” Carr adds. “So we’re going to understand how to do projects more quickly, and part of our understanding about that is how we can use technologies to collaborate to share information more quickly.”

For those embarking down the project management path within their organizations, Carr’s core piece of advice is to never lose sight of the importance of managing relationships throughout the process. This includes upper management, stakeholders and everyone charged with creating the end product or service.

“Just in (terms of) simple software development, it’s about making sure the users are involved properly,” Carr says. “We say time and time again that it’s important, but time and time again we see software development as highly unpopular with users when things are rolled out.”

For more information on NetHope, go to

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