Project Peril

During the boom years, CIOs pushed their teams to the limit to ensure vital infrastructure would be ready in time – but with the downturn, many of these projects lie cancelled or indefinitely delayed. Piers Ford looks into the vital role of the project manager in preventing these kinds of situations.

Tags: Dubai Mercantile ExchangeNational Bank of Abu DhabiUnited Arab Emirates
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Project Peril O’KIRWAN: Before, you’d add 10% to the corporate IT expenditure into the budget each year as a matter of course.
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By  Piers Ford Published  January 3, 2010 Arabian Computer News Logo

It isn’t only the economic climate that’s having an impact on the progress of IT projects in some sectors across the Gulf. And while there is a skills shortage – likely to become more acute as projects gather momentum when the recovery hits its stride – this is also just one of several elements that are now influencing project delivery.

According to at least one senior IT executive, the greatest pressure of all is coming from a general, fundamental lack of understanding as to what the project manager’s role should be in providing value to the business through the progression and delivery of a project.

Whatever their order of importance, there’s no doubt that combined, these factors are making it very difficult for CIOs and IT directors to steer a meaningful path through the challenges of project fulfilment.

“I would suggest that across the region, the project manager is not fully empowered,” says Saher Arar, deputy CIO at the National Bank of Abu Dhabi. “They don’t fully control the budget, and most organisations are functional rather than projectised. The project manager is not the only person who takes the decision about who joins the project. There needs to be more focus, not just on doing the right thing but on doing it right!”

Not that this has been the case at the National Bank, which has continued to drive forward projects to support growth, including the implementation of a major Unix-based treasury and risk management platform, enterprise data warehouses and Oracle Financials. It currently has a project worksheet of more than 100 active system requirements and is on course to hire more than 50 new IT staff for the department in 2010.

“Certainly we’re not doing things in a random way,” says Arar. “The focus is very much on risk mitigation. The bank is a very challenging and adventurous place to work and there are a lot of opportunities. That’s why we’re going to introduce a project management office to help us control our projects better, moderate the risks and manage our resources.”

Arar says that the support of senior management to the project cycle is crucial although again, this is not an issue at the National bank of Abu Dhabi. Choosing the right people and suppliers, on the other hand, can be a problem. With a significant ongoing investment in Unix, for example, highly skilled support staff are expensive and hard to come by. The bank needs people who understand the applications and the business, and have an insight into what the traders actually do.

“Where the financial crisis has had an impact is among IT vendors,” says Arar. “Before you engage any supplier on a project, make sure that they have an up-to-date profile; you don’t want to be signing up with someone who is about to go under.

“Even when you are dealing with a vendor who is supposed to be able to provide you with professional services, you might find that the people they have deployed to the region aren’t good enough in terms of the knowledge they bring to the business – which in turn makes it difficult for the CIO to leverage to the business the value of what the project is trying to achieve.”

Paul O’Kirwan, director of IT at Dubai Mercantile Exchange (DME) agrees with this assertion. As most would agree, Dubai’s project scene has taken a harder hit, particularly in the financial and property sectors, and he says vendors and suppliers will inevitably be feeling the pain as customers rein in projects – leaving CIOs in a potential double bind.

“In previous times, we’d be looking at getting three years out of a server before replacing it with the latest technology,” says O’Kirwan. “Now, we’ve got four-year-old servers that we want to extend for another two years. And that’s not great news for suppliers. Some vendors are suffering terribly, even to the extent of shutting services down, and some won’t  be able to survive.

“That means we have to reassess and reconsider them on an ongoing basis, constantly carry out due diligence on their financial situation, ask for a list of their current projects. Will they still be around in six months? That’s a question you didn’t have to worry about before.”

O’Kirwan says projects have been mothballed at DME. Anything that doesn’t enhance the exchange’s core business is scrutinised. A complete planned upgrade to blade servers has been put on ice, for example, in favour of extending the life of the current platform.

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