He spoke softly, but his message was blunt. "State and local government senior managers," observed Gopal K. Kapur, "wouldn't know the process for managing information systems projects if it wrapped itself around them in broad daylight."
Kapur lives and breathes information technology project management. A teacher, writer and consultant on the subject, the former engineer from India is also president of his own company, the Center for Project Management, which offers seminars and training for public- and private-sector project management leaders and teams.
What Kapur has seen of project management in government concerns him. He is quick to say, however, that states and localities are earnestly trying to adapt project management techniques for system development, "but they need to become very good at project management and accelerate its training at a high speed."
Why the big hurry to adopt a management technique that was just a specialty of engineers and builders a few short years ago? According to Fortune magazine, today's flat organizations are increasingly focusing on projects as the way to do business. With automation and empowered workers taking over more and more of the day-to-day operations, many organizations are turning to projects and project managers as a way to manage change and get things done. With the business of government emulating the private sector, it follows that project management will become increasingly important in the public sector. But that's not the only reason.
Government is investing in more information systems today, and they are larger and more complex than ever, pointed out Martin Cole, a managing partner for Andersen Consulting.
"As the states have gotten into large, statewide programs with new technologies, it is extremely important that there is a discipline in place to keep together the disparate components of technology, people, distributed networks and the like," he said.
And if today's large systems are any indication of what's to come, government executives and senior managers will have their hands full developing and deploying tomorrow's systems. With the federal government about to give states a freer rein on how they deliver social as well as other types of services, agency executives will find themselves in the position of not just deploying large-scale projects, but also creating them as well. To succeed will require a heavy dose of project management skills.
That's what concerns Kapur. "States will have to be ready to take an idea from scratch, analyze it, look for a solution, develop it and then deploy it," he pointed out. "Project management is the necessary skill for taking an idea and bringing it to closure."
Projects are temporary jobs undertaken to create a unique product or service. They can involve any number of people and are led by project managers who must balance demands of scope, time, cost and quality in order to meet a client's requirements and expectations.
For decades, project management has been a discipline in engineering, construction and other industries where a key management skill has always been the ability to complete a job on time and on budget. Yet it's only been in recent years that the discipline has moved from a niche role to its current status as one of the leading reasons for success in some of the country's best companies, according to research in the Harvard Business Review.
As a result, project management has been touted as a new and better way to run a business. "Projects and project management are the wave of the future in global business," stated an article in Business Horizons (March-April 1995). "Increasingly, technically complex products and processes, vastly shortened time-to-market windows, and the need for cross-functional expertise make project management an important and powerful tool in the hands of organizations that understand its use."
With the success