September 15, 2008 By Merrill Douglas
Vivek Kundra sadly remembers an IT project the District of Columbia Public Schools conducted several years ago. The goal was to implement the PeopleSoft enterprise resource planning system. The project failed probably due to poor management, said Kundra, who joined the district as its chief technology officer in May 2007. "There was $25 million flushed down the toilet," he said.
Kundra used that story to illustrate why governments need to follow sound management principles for their IT projects. Increasingly governments use formal project management methodologies to ensure IT projects move forward as planned - on time, on budget and with proper attention to business needs.
"There isn't anything we do from an IT standpoint that doesn't require project management," said Teri Takai, CIO of California. That's true not only when the state implements new software applications. "Project management is just as important for upgrading the infrastructure, making sure that even studies we're doing are well managed," she said.
One level up from project management, governments also are paying attention to how they manage IT initiative portfolios. "A portfolio management function should be keeping a 30,000-foot view of the status of projects," said Mike Locatis, CIO of Colorado. That includes watching for troubled projects and setting priorities for projects across the state government, he said.
"Enterprise becomes more important with portfolio management versus project management," said Davood Ghods, agency information officer of the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). Together they provide a structured and repeatable approach for conducting projects, supporting organizational goals and missions, aligning IT with business needs and getting a return on the IT investment, he said.
Some governments have formed special offices to coordinate enterprisewide IT initiatives to set priorities, allocate resources and avert redundant efforts. Others have established programs to boost project management skills. For example, Washington, D.C.'s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) runs a boot camp to help its project management teams.
California is hiring and training project managers and teaching project management skills to all IT professionals. "It's not just training a group of individuals and calling them project managers," Takai said. "It's really training all your folks to understand how important project management is and the basic project management techniques." Future training will also focus on helping business managers understand the importance of planning in IT projects, she said.
Minnesota's Planning and Portfolio Management Division, part of the state's Office of Enterprise Technology, created a project management academy as a resource for department-level IT project managers. The academy offers templates, models, tools and other resources.
"We've also created a combination of classroom and online development activities for beginning and experienced project managers," said John Lally, the division's director. These are based on educational materials developed by the Project Management Institute, an association for project management professionals. Unfortunately recent budget cuts have kept the division from marketing or updating this resource, he said.
Such programs aim to cultivate basic management proficiencies, like organization, planning and budgeting. They also try to promote softer skills, such as communications, team building and anticipating roadblocks.
"The skill sets, obviously, that are required are great communication skills, amazing ability to organize, the ability to convene people [and] the ability to spot problems before they explode," Kundra said.
"Clearly people skills are very high on the list," said Takai. "It has to be someone who can express issues very well, in a noncontentious way - someone who is skilled at collaboration and how you draw people together."
A project manager must be able to communicate with upper management and project team members. "They also, to a certain extent, need to be a public information officer because there are so many constituents who are interested and have a vested interest in the success
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