The IT project professionals

Overseeing a project is no longer the sole responsibility of the IT department. Companies are turning to management professionals to ensure successful project implementation

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By  Caroline Denslow Published  December 4, 2005

|~|featurebody.jpg|~|The greater the user and top management involvement in an IT project are, the greater the chances of successful implementation.|~|There has been a perceptible shift in the way companies in the Middle East have looked at IT. From being a distant curiosity, IT is rapidly being accepted as a necessary tool for business. In fact, it has almost become an operational standard to have some sort of IT presence in place within the company — be it a department consisting of 30 people or a single employee overseeing the whole IT administration and operations of the organisation. The use of technology also encompasses a wide and varied field, from the state-of-the-art systems that high-profile organisations such as Emirates Airline and telecom operator Etisalat have put in place, to the more basic automation of certain business processes such as purchasing and accounting for smaller businesses. But no matter what the type or size, the need for an IT system is no longer viewed as just an option; it is now an indispensable tool that can help businesses stay afloat. However, implementing a project is not just a matter of simply identifying what the company wants done, allocating the resources for it, and then leaving everything for the IT department to complete. Project management is a concerted effort between both business and technology users of the organisation. If done properly, it can be a straightforward and worry-free experience where at the end, the company reaps the reward of benefiting from the project. But in some cases, it can be a nightmare that seems to go on forever, wherein instead of developing an IT system, the company has created a black hole that keeps on absorbing all your resources and time. There is no shortage of pitfalls — some obvious, other hidden — that can derail a project. For instance, a major bank in the region embarked on a big customer relationship management (CRM) project only to discover 10 months down the line it did not have enough data on customers to put its CRM tools to any meaningful use. The project had to be abandoned. In another example, a solutions provider pitched an overly high-tech solution to Swiss Arabian Perfumes Group, a local manufacturer of perfumes and cosmetics. However, the engineers of the IT outsourcing firm were not familiar with the product, according to Javed Akhtar, IT manager of Swiss Arabian Perfumes Group. After eight months, the project was shelved and a new team had to be put in place to redo the system, says Akhtar. While these may appear to be isolated examples of poor judgement on the part of the companies involved, they are not all that rare, says Ali Sakr, general manager of Raya Gulf. “People tend to over-simplify certain requirements. They tend to think it is a nice way to limit expenses and get more out of the vendor. But the quality of delivery is affected,” says Sakr. “There is a strong tendency to underestimate things as well, even the need for full-time project managers. Some companies would say that they don’t need project management,” he states. “There is a tendency to inadequately budget for project management time…to pay for project manager’s time,” adds Shishir Srivastava, director, Sage Software Middle East. Sakr says there is a need to conduct a proper analysis of business requirements at the pre-sales stage itself. “Otherwise, projects don’t finish in a proper manner,” he adds. Srivastava agrees. “Project objectives should be clear, tangible to the business and measurable,” he says. A clear acceptance of project criteria is also critical to the IT initiative’s success. “I know a company in the US that went bankrupt because it took on the task of creating a ‘nice’ interface for a client. For years, they were creating that nice interface,” recounts Sakr. The risks are much higher especially when a company is taking on a complex IT project. Not only is the possibility of going over budget and over deadline more plausible, sometimes the challenges become so great for a company that the project might fail altogether. ||**||Points of failure |~|feature2body.jpg|~|The greater the user and top management involvement are, the greater the chances of successfully implementing a project.|~|While project failures are often blamed on the company’s inexperience for doing such things, developed markets such as the US — where substantial project management expertise exists — have also had their fair share of project fiascos. In fact a study by The Standish Group, a firm that has made a business out of tracking project successes and failures, shows that one in seven projects in the US have to be abandoned midstream. The same report says only a third of all projects are classified as ‘unqualified successes’, that is, the projects meet business as well as time and budget goals. The rest are considered ‘challenged projects’, or projects that go beyond the time and costs allocated for them or do not deliver the right functionality to end users. So, why do so many projects fail? For one, more often than not, top management does not commit itself adequately. Since IT projects are as much about change management as they are about technology, lack of top management involvement sends the wrong signal: users don’t need to change the way they work. On other occasions, lack of project management expertise might doom the initiative. Such knowledge is rather rare. It impacts everything from how the projects are scoped out, to execution approach to choice of technology and partners. Other factors, such as unrealistic timelines, lack of clarity on objectives or very tight budgets, can also hurt the chances of the project succeeding. All of these might sound scary. It may even seem like starting an IT project is a sure-fire way to ruin one’s career. But it need not be. Just as much as research paints a rather grim scenario of what happens to most IT projects, it also points towards solutions that are quite simple. The basic truth for any IT projects is that the greater the user and top management involvement are, the greater the cha-nces of successfully implementing a project. And if you add a good and experienced project manager, then there is no reason why a company cannot manage a project well. Proper scoping of the project right at the beginning goes a long way towards ensuring both service provider and the client work with each other rather than against each other. A comprehensive project scope and limitation study has to be finalised before a solution is designed and built. That study defines the boundaries of the project and impedes clients from demanding additional requirements when the project is already halfway from completion. Project scoping is important to avoid time and cost slippages as well as disputes between the systems integrator and the client. Definitions, too, are important in this context. Customers could have different definition standards in place. It is the responsibility of the service provider to articulate definitions and get everyone to agree to the same. “One of our customers came to us asking us to re-brand their web site. We thought this project was largely about the look and feel of the site. We assumed some marketing agency would give us the brief. Later, it turned out they wanted us to do everything including chalking out a branding strategy. We are not even in that line of business,” says Sakr. In order to manage large, complicated projects, all experts suggest breaking them down into smaller, more manageable sub-tasks. Each of these tasks should have clear and measurable milestones. “Even things like how the status reports would look like and what they would contain should be agreed upon at the beginning itself,” says Sakr. Pressures from companies to execute IT projects in a timely and cost-effective manner has, in the last few years, resulted in IT project management becoming something of a discipline in itself. The Middle East, according to Sakr, also looks at project management the same way. “More and more people are getting convinced that project management needs to be taken seriously,” Sakr says. However, Umar Malik, vice president, Professional Services, Tech Access, thinks there is still a long way to go. He believes that part of the problem lies in the region being short on people who have adequate skills to fulfil the role of a project manager. “If you go beyond the top 2-3% of companies, there isn’t much in-house IT project management capability that exists in the region,” Malik notes. “There is an added complexity peculiar to the region — you have people from so many countries here. They all have different ways of thinking and working,” adds Srivastava. In fact, preparedness to manage and execute projects is something of an issue. “It is not uncommon to find the customer is not really ready for a major IT project,” says Sakr. There could be several reasons for this. The shortage of people with adequate skills and experience to supervise a project is the most common problem. Sakr says that whenever Raya Integration — a division of Raya Group that offers consulting services and project management facilities to companies — oversees a project for a client, one of the first things it does is to assess the skills of the company’s in-house IT department. “We highlight this with top management. Then it boils down to training and retraining. Sometimes we also suggest they hire new staff,” Sakr explains. Tech Access, which also provides project management services to companies, sometimes takes it to the next level: in some cases, it goes to the extent of hiring people for clients. Another problem some companies face, especially if it is a start-up, is that whenever an enterprise plans to deploy technology in a big way, there is always a chance that it was not able to think through the whole business processes involved. In such a case, project specifications tend to change frequently, which leads to frustration on the part of the service provider. But the biggest — and the most fatal — flaw, and one that usually spells doom for any IT project, is the reluctance of the top management to get deeply involved, primarily because they are not culturally ready or are just plain uncomfortable in engaging themselves about technology-related issues. ||**||PMO in control |~|prasadbody.jpg|~|K.S.N. Prasad of Alpha Data. |~|Most of the times, the top management hands over the control of the project to the company’s IT department. The problem with that approach is the IT department does not have enough clout or authority to direct the organisation’s employees, particularly the more senior staff of the company, to abide by the new processes in place and use the new systems installed. “In such a situation, we keep going through with top management the merits of being involved in the project over and over again, trying to make them aware of the benefits and the challenges,” says Sakr. “We insist they become part of the steering committee so that they can listen and identify with the project. We literally drag them into the project. We sometimes even try to get the CEO as project director,” he adds and emphasise that setting the right project organisation is a must. “A project director should be a person who is senior and has considerable influence. He sho-uld be aware of the strategic directions of the company and be able to push things through if there are bottlenecks,” elaborates Sakr. While it is essential to have an influential person on board to head the project, that is just one part of the equation. The other part of successful project management is having a project management office or PMO. A relatively new idea, PMO is fast catching on in the West. The idea behind PMO is quite simple. All a company needs to do is to create a body of people, who have the experience of managing complex projects, to drive the initiative. PMO serves as the link bet- ween users, the company’s IT department and the solution provider implementing the project. It can help CIOs define a more organised process workflow by providing the structure needed to both standardise project management and facilitate IT project portfolio management, as well as determine the methodologies required for repeatable processes. Having a PMO is especially useful for projects that cost a considerable amount of money, Malik says. “Only a few [companies] set up a PMO. It is crucial particula- rly if the projects are large — in excess of US$500,000,” he adds. However, it is important to roll out this idea carefully so that a company does not end up creating a “super project manager” who leaves other stakeholders disenfranchised. The trick is to charter a PMO carefully, enabling a project manager to serve peers, not boss over them, and allow him to share his in-depth knowledge of project management without overplaying his role. A typical PMO would have teams that consist of the project manager, the project coordinator, the project engineer, consultants and technicians. “Designing a team along the lines of the corporate structure and including members of top management ensures easy adoption of best practices,” says K.S.N. Prasad, general manager, Alpha Data Dubai. Appointing someone from within the company to manage a PMO can be difficult. Firstly, companies usually have a hard time finding the right people. They are both rare and very expensive. Pulling best people from different functions internally is another option but there are risks associated with that approach. “If a material manager has been out of his department for a year, he often has trouble going back. He might feel that he has acquired a far higher level of skills and is over qualified to return to his earlier position. Oftentimes such people tend to leave the company. So the organisation has to plan for redundancies,” says Srivastava. There is a school of thought that argues taking the concept even further. It believes that the PMO functionality should be outsourced to a specialist. “Think of it as like having an auditor or a referee. PMO, too, should be managed by a third party. It is usually very hard to find the right person in-house,” says Malik. “Besides, a person chosen from within the organisation is likely to have his own political agenda. By having an outside entity or person look after PMO, ensures that there are no vested interests blocking the project,” he adds. Prasad puts the issue in perspective: “When the resources are not present in-house, outsourcing PM is considered. A primary advantage would be a higher degree of conformance to standards.” “The time required to understand the concepts and getting to know all the parties involved might be higher and subsequently a disadvantage,” he says. But whatever the mechanism a company follows for its IT projects, setting up a PMO might not be a bad idea. Research conducted by the Project Management Institute in the US suggests at least half of the companies that set up PMOs found that it made a difference to project implementation. More importantly, the longer the PMO stays, the more it tends to influence the success rate of projects, says the research.But PMOs are no panacea for project challenges, including battling today’s lukewarm business climate. For one thing, there is no uniform recipe for success — it is important that the PMO structure is closely patterned around a company’s corporate culture. PMOs also won’t give enterprises a quick fix or deliver immediate, quantifiable savings. Coming up with a PMO that works for any given organisation is an exercise in both customisation and patience. When it comes to establishing a PMO, there are no road maps to follow, benchmarks to target or metrics against which to measure. The most effective PMOs are those that reap improvements over time and continuously push the IT department to improve on its performance. ||**||

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