Alignment aids IT projects Featured

8:58am EDT October 25, 2006
Business leaders recognize that networking, databases, data storage and communication are essential to running the organization, but are often hard-pressed to understand just how the IT infrastructure adds specific value to the business.

Information technology projects are less likely than other business initiatives to have strong executive-level sponsorship, are performed out of sight of business users, and are more likely to rely on external resources. These are just a few factors that illustrate why IT projects need to be managed slightly differently than other business programs.

“It’s much easier to manage an IT project successfully when people throughout the organization understand how the project relates directly to the business,” says Mike Amerson, director of the project management office at Systems Evolution, a leading IT consulting and solutions provider headquartered in Houston.

Smart Business asked Amerson how companies can improve their IT project management.

How do IT projects need to be managed differently than other business projects?
It’s not always obvious how IT project goals support business strategy, so companies really need to focus on the project scope to be sure the project will give them what they need. IT project management doesn’t usually have direct access to C-level managers, which often means more communication is needed, especially to identify and manage the expectations of all stakeholders.

It’s also not always clear just how many people and departments the IT project will impact, so an organizational readiness assessment should be performed to make sure there are no surprises or unintended consequences. The more systems are integrated, the greater the risk of causing unintended business process problems. This can lead to surprises for the business user.

External experts are often used in IT projects, both to supplement and extend the expertise of the internal IT team. This is a result of the rapid change in technologies and increasing integration of systems. When they are, it’s very important to manage the transfer of knowledge from the external resource into the organization.

How can external project management assistance help?
IT project management professionals can be very helpful in adapting project management processes, standards and metrics appropriate for an organization’s management culture and project needs. They can also often recommend tools and resources to help, or identify skills that need to be developed internally to support the system after the project is completed. IT organizations that are overloaded with initiatives can also utilize external project management professionals to extend their leadership team.

Departmental collaboration and representation are important, but just how large and broad should a project team be?
The team needs to be big enough to complete the project, without being too large to manage effectively. One rule of thumb is that a project manager can oversee four to six teams, and teams should be no larger than four to six people so that team leaders are still able to contribute technically. When teams are larger, there’s a risk the project manager and/or team leads will be swamped with keeping in touch with the team and won’t be able to do much else. Since most IT project managers and leaders are also the most skilled technically, this can substantially improve the quality of the system.

What are your top tips for IT project management?

  • Conduct inernal IT projects as if you were doing it for a company client: assign a manager, prepare a plan, get executive buy-in and assign resources accordingly.

  • Actively manage the risks.

  • Manage change. This includes not only changes to the company’s business operations and systems, but also changes to project scope, which can creep in and cause problems with schedule, cost and quality.

  • Communicate, communicate and communicate — among project teams, stakeholders and the larger business community itself. Good communication isn’t just informing people what’s going on; it includes getting feedback that can be used to make the system better.

  • Reserve time to periodically review the project. Don’t wait until the end to review how it’s meeting its plans and goals.

  • Empower the team. Involve all the team members, challenge them and commit them to the success of the project.

IT projects should be treated as true projects, not as action items on the IT department’s to-do list. IT projects shouldn’t be prioritized just among other IT projects, they should be prioritized alongside all business initiatives.

MIKE AMERSON is director of Systems Evolution’s project management office. Reach him at mike.amerson@systemsevolution.com. Systems Evolution is a professional services organization that provides software development solutions, Enterprise Project Management consulting, managed network support and permanent placement. For more information visit www.systemsevolution.com.