Affordable Academy

Virginia takes project management into its own hands.

by / April 4, 2003
Does better project management really increase the chances an IT project will succeed? Virginia intends to prove that, done right, it does.

In 2000, several jurisdictions, including Scottsdale, Ariz., Kansas City and Michigan, began rolling out their own project management training programs (see The Ascendancy of the Project Manager by Tod Newcombe, November 2000). These efforts came partly in response to surveys showing that an average of six out of 10 IT projects were over budget, behind schedule or failed altogether.

Those jurisdictions soon found out project management programs weren't as simple as they anticipated. Setup proved to be expensive and time-intensive, requiring jurisdictions to impose a disciplined methodology on project preplanning, planning, design and development. These programs also needed to be led by an experienced -- and expensive -- project manager. As a result, some project management initiatives ran over budget and failed to accomplish their objectives.

Virginia officials were convinced better project management could increase IT project success. But taking a lesson from the struggles of other jurisdictions, the commonwealth decided to take a different approach.

A New Approach
In 2000, then-Secretary of Technology Donald Upson brought in a resident consultant for technology. Not yet ready to commit to a full-time project manager, Upson believed a consultant could give the state some insight into the area and do so more affordably. Twyla Garrett was brought on to provide those services. A veteran of several major IT projects for the federal government, Garrett had launched her own project management consultancy earlier that year.

Garrett was placed in the Virginia Department of Public Safety, which had $800 million in IT initiatives in the works. She quickly discovered the agency had no project management methodology.

"They didn't have any foundation in project management, and they hadn't taken on anything large scale before," said Garrett. "Large scale to them was $5 million, and they were about to embark on a $100 million project. I wanted to develop a project-management framework and methodology they could implement and a risk-management process they could utilize."

Garrett began by addressing the department's CIOs. The department consists of 11 agencies, each with its own CIO. Before Garrett came aboard, these officials had never formally worked together; some had never even met each other. Garrett immediately launched a CIO Steering Committee, where she discovered the CIOs weren't speaking the same language when it came to project management.

"The first thing we did was implement a glossary of common terms," she said. "We then sat everyone down and told them that in the next year we'd like to have everyone talking the same language."

Garrett recommended creating a project management academy to help begin the process and to implement common project-management methodologies. "Up to that point, we hadn't put forth a lot of standards. We had great goals, but agencies didn't have a chance to meet those goals because they didn't have the proper tools," she said. "They had nothing to say, 'I can obtain that goal because I know what it takes to get there.' We needed to give people the tools ? if they have the tools, then you can hold them accountable and judge whether they have passed or failed."

Although the idea was appealing, Virginia was in the midst of a budget crisis, and some of the first programs cut involved training and technology. But Garrett was determined. "I asked them if I thought of something creative and cost effective if they would let me do it. They agreed, so it was then up to me to figure out how."

Most other jurisdictions relied on private companies to supply project management training, often at a cost of $600 to $1,000 per student per course. Garrett knew that simply wouldn't fly in Virginia, so her solution was to secure discounted pricing for classes. Instead of negotiating on a per-student basis, Garrett negotiated lump sums. "I'd say 'I need a favor -- I need you to come in and train, but I only have $5,000. Can you do it?' The big companies all turned me down -- it wasn't enough money for them."

However, Garrett found many of the smaller firms were willing to work with her. Using small training companies like IT Solutions, Professional Services and Technically Speaking, Garrett was able to launch a Project Management Academy last November.

First Steps
The first class offered at Virginia's Project Management Academy was Negotiations. "Four of our major projects were in negotiations with vendors and none of our people had the skill sets to negotiate," Garrett said. "Therefore, I decided the first class we needed was a negotiations class. We rearranged the schedule and the curriculum so we could start with negotiations and come back to project management."

Project management classes are now held three days a week, with a total of 14 classes making up the academy. Once a student completes all 14 classes, he or she receives a certificate from Virginia's secretary of public safety.

Anyone involved in managing one of nine IT projects over $1 million currently under way in Virginia is required to attend the academy. In addition, all eleven public safety CIOs must attend. As Garrett explained, the CIOs don't necessarily need the training, but having them there gives their employees a sense of support.

"A lot of employees are afraid to report anything because they aren't sure how their CIO is going to take it," said Garrett. "When their CIO is sitting next to them in class, they find out they don't know everything either. People are now more open and there is a huge information exchange that has never occurred before."

Naseem Reza, CIO for the Virginia State Police and one of 36 people who make up the first academy, agreed. "By attending these classes you get to know people from other agencies that have similar missions," said Reza. "A lot of times on a technical issue we call each other and confer and share knowledge."

"In the last administration there was a big gap -- the people at the Cabinet level gave the directions and didn't understand what went on at the agency," Garrett said. "That mindset in public safety has already changed. It is not uncommon for a CIO to call me to report a major problem immediately, where during the last administration they were afraid to even dial the number. Now they know there is a peer they can talk to that can help resolve the problem before it gets to the governor's office."

Garrett often helps teach the courses, which also keeps costs down. None of Virginia's Project Management classes cost more then $350 per student, and the average cost is $220.

More Effective Communication
Dee Pisciella, CIO for Virginia's Department of Corrections, is currently enrolled in the Project Management Academy. "It brings the public safety agencies under a similar system of handling IT projects. CIOs meet frequently and share experiences and resources with each other. If you are all working on the same, standardized process, it becomes a much more effective communication and support effort," Pisciella said. "I think the end result will be the commonwealth will save considerable money and produce more and more successful technology projects."

According to Garrett, the commonwealth already has saved between $5 million and $7 million by leveraging its purchasing, practicing knowledge management, selecting and controlling investments, and implementing project management techniques.

But Garrett sees the overall goal of the academy as more than saving money. She wants to prove that a state can take control of its own project management training and come out on top.

"We want to be more accountable and more sound in our judgment and selection of projects," she said. "We want project managers and CIOs to look at what they are taking on and make sure they weigh it against the status quo. What are the benefits? What is the increased functionality? And then, of course, we want them to make the right decision."

Justine Brown Contributing Writer