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