Qualitative Benefits

When Minnesota wanted its IT projects to run more smoothly and with greater accountability, it created its own Project Management Academy.

by / July 3, 2002
With state budgets shrinking and demands for greater accountability rising, some states are freezing or eliminating IT projects and programs. Minnesota, however, has chosen a different path. Rather then cut back, the state is encouraging employees to complete IT projects more efficiently and effectively through its new Project Management Academy.

Administered by the state Office of Technology's Enterprise Program Management Office (PMO), the Project Management Academy launched its initial course offerings in January 2002. The first three-day course, addressing project-management fundamentals, was offered six times during the first half of the year.

By The Book

Rex Andre, director of Minnesota's Program Management Office, has extensive experience operating project management academies in the private sector. Andre found Minnesota agencies had a very common problem: a lack of project management knowledge.

In many offices, Andre said, projects that begin as seemingly routine IT functions are later termed a project, then given a project manager -- usually the person who had previously been running it. This approach can lead to a haphazard project management style, because a novice manager may be uncertain of reporting requirements and methods for keeping communication channels open. It can also cause frustration and project delays when a capable IT professional is asked to assume the unfamiliar role of project manager.

For this reason, the academy focuses on introducing students to the state's project management methodology, a system codified in a hefty document that takes a project manager step by step through each phase of a project, from assigning a "project champion" to preparing an outcomes assessment report. Templates for the various components of this methodology are available to project managers online.

Although the state allows individual agencies a certain degree of latitude, it intends its templates and methodologies to be the preferred way of running a project. "[Students need] to know what we are talking about when we say 'risk' or 'status'," said Eileen McCormack, planning director.

This is most important in the monthly status report, a document that should always follow the state's established template.

"It is a way of communicating with stakeholders," McCormack said. "It is so central because it brings together all the elements for project management."

Building Skills

Each session at the Project Management Academy accommodates 16 students. Ninety-six people were expected to be trained by the end of June. The Program Management Office picked up part of the class fee for agency attendees, making the final tuition cost to the agencies $300 per student. The state signed a $50,000 contract with Watermark Learning to provide instruction for the initial course offering. State experts will teach some future courses and workshops.

The state believes the training will make a qualitative -- and, perhaps, quantitative -- difference in the way state agencies run IT projects.

Elizabeth Larson, instructor for the fundamentals class, said it builds three kinds of skills in its students: technical skills, including the how-to aspects of solving business problems; communication and partnership building, including the importance of communicating with all project stakeholders; and leadership, which includes understanding and working with team dynamics.

Because of its broad scope, Larson said nearly all project stakeholders can benefit from the fundamentals course. "We really need everyone from director down to team members [to take it.] They all need the class in a different way," she said.

Larson said the class has been well received by students, many of whom had misgivings about it at first. "They came into class feeling threatened," she said, adding that many feared the statewide methodology would ultimately mean more work on top of an already busy schedule. However, by the end of the course, most found the system to be a tool to increase efficiency and not an imposed bureaucracy, Larson said.

Rick Lorenzen, a system analyst unit supervisor with the Fisheries Division of the state Department of Natural Resources and a student of the fundamentals course, echoed these sentiments. The overview of project management was not new to him, Lorenzen said, but he was interested in learning what kinds of documentation the state wants and completing class exercises that allowed him to use knowledge gained in a realistic setting. As a project manager undertaking a large two- to five-year project, Lorenzen said, "I'm going to try to send all the people that work here [to the class]."

Lorenzen also expects the course to help him set priorities among projects. "I will be struggling with others creating large projects and dumping them on me," he said.

Money Matters

No matter what the value of a project, additional expenditure is difficult to justify at a time when state budgets are being trimmed. "Minnesota has some enlightened executives that know that everything is being run as a project," Andre said, adding the state has been willing to fund the Program Management Office and the academy.

A portion of the state funds appropriated to the Office of Technology is earmarked for the Program Management Office's operating costs. Additionally, part of the state's Technology Enterprise Fund helps defray salary and related costs at the PMO. Finally, training costs for the academy are subsidized in part by the Office of Technology, with the remainder paid by the participating agency.

Andre credits the state's willingness to provide funding for the academy's success. "PMOs fail because they have to be self-sustaining," he said.

With money coming directly from state line items, the academy can focus on training rather than funding. However, tracing cost savings after academy participation is more difficult. "It's difficult for PMOs to provide ROI [data]," Andre said.

Return is much more qualitative than quantitative, with improvement being measured by how efficiently a project is run, how accurately it can stay on schedule and whether a failing project is discontinued before undue investment in it is made.

"Legislatures are demanding more responsibility for how money is spent," said Larson, noting the academy helps participating agencies focus on managing projects better. Whether "better" translates into "more inexpensively" can only be determined when more students have participated in the academy and run projects using the state methodology.

The state plans to expand its academy offerings, adding half-day courses on elements of the project management methodology and executive seminars to help directors understand what to expect from their project managers. And the academy will continue to pursue a goal that Andre has identified: "Provide just the right kind of training for your target audience."