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Tackling tough projects

News Analysis
Feb 24, 20035 mins
Data CenterIT Skills

Companies move from individual heroics to project management to get IT rollouts done.

When Rich Houle joined Northern Trust in 2001, application development projects were dropping on his infrastructure team like marbles hitting a tile floor. Application teams had his IT staff scrambling to meet requests to build out the network to support their work.

When the developers wrote new code or had an application to launch, they’d need the database, Unix or other infrastructure teams to set up the required development, testing and production servers and ancillary equipment.

The application folks were spending too much time managing the build-out, says Houle, senior vice president of worldwide operations and technology in Chicago. Meanwhile, the infrastructure people couldn’t relate on a project level. “They lacked project management experience,” he says.

After contracting with two Project Management Institute (PMI) consultants, Houle launched a project management office last year. “There’s no more ‘hero cowboy’ pulling it off at the last minute,” he says. Now the applications people plan the work with one of the six project managers who coordinate, lead and communicate with all the infrastructure teams.

The demand for IT project management skills has risen on the wave of enterprisewide software rollouts of the last few years. Companies are adding formal roles, programs and training to structure, prioritize and manage IT work that encompasses business units and crosses continents. What’s more, certifications such as PMI’s Project Management Professional and CompTIA IT Project+ are gaining popularity.

IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology reports a recent spike in demand for IT professionals with project management skills to lead systems integration jobs for Oracle, PeopleSoft and other ERP applications. Demand has increased 30% overall since 2001, and project managers are rated as seventh on the list of hottest IT positions in 2003, according to the firm’s survey of 1,400 CIOs. Compensation for project management specialists ranges from $30 to $300 an hour, based on the level of experience.

Gopal Kapur, president for the Center of Project Management, agrees there’s an acute need for project management skills in IT because of the complexity of systems integration technologies such as ERP, SAP and CRM that require enterprisewide discipline.

Based on preliminary results from the center’s annual poll of national conference attendees, the percentage of challenged projects that have compromised quality, schedules or budgets rose to 40% for 2002, compared with 30% in 2001. Conversely, the percentage of failed projects declined from 30% to 20% in 2002, and the percentage of project successes remained steady at 30%.

As the complexity rises and projects grow, the losses are much bigger. “In 1995, we didn’t hear of companies filing for bankruptcy or multimillion-dollar lawsuits due to failed projects,” Kapur says.

David Foote, president and chief research officer of Foote Partners, sees a similar trend. He has studied failed IT projects in which companies were spending hundreds of millions of dollars on technology that wasn’t working. Now deployments are forcing IT to become more accountable and outline a quantifiable return on investment. “Business people said, ‘Wait a minute, somebody has to pay for this, and somebody has to be in charge,'” he says.

Project management provides that structure to get IT done, says Foote, who estimates the number of project management offices will double in the next four years. Project management offices, typically under the IT umbrella, employ staffers with experience in managing a range of technology projects. The purpose is to establish a routine way to set up the authority and accountability to support multiple complex projects. The process lets IT get the issues out of the way upfront, manage and educate teams at different stages of projects, monitor vital signs and identify troubled projects that need killing early on in the process.

Project management offers a flexible process for handling sudden changes from technology vendors and the economy, Kapur concurs. “We’re beginning to see the relationship between good project management and successful projects,” he says.

Northern Trust’s project management structure lets Houle more easily prioritize IT work. “In one discussion, I have a list of what we are doing for every single app team. When things get nutty, and we have to make priority calls, it’s a piece of cake,” Houle says.

Project management always has been important at Harrah’s Entertainment, and IT now is formalizing the role of project management to keep pace with business growth and development projects.

“When you’re doing four properties simultaneously in different states, there is one key person who is the lead, and that person is from IT,” says Tim Stanley, CIO at Harrah’s in Las Vegas. For complex projects, IT assigns two or three project managers and one super-project manager to drive the entire show.

Harrah’s uses a “playbook” for business expansion projects and is expanding its use to the development teams. The playbook is a documented resource that outlines IT’s role in business expansions, conversions and new openings. These guidelines lead IT through project management protocols, time estimates and required skills to convert systems, procedures and processes. “We can pull together key teams of folks from across the country, different functional areas and map all of this out,” Stanley says.

While Harrah’s doesn’t require project management certifications of new hires, IT invests in training and compensates employees through related performance objectives. “As we do recruiting, we look for that as sort of an extra bonus,” Stanley says. “IT professionals need to be as good with people and the process as they are with the technology itself.”

Responsibilities: To write in-depth feature stories about a variety of enterprise technologies and management strategies. Tasks include formulating story ideas, interviewing and writing stories. Past experience: Worked as Associate Features Editor at Network World compiling the technology Buyers Guides. How to reach: Best to reach early in the day, Monday through Friday.

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