Program management gets second look

Across the public and private sectors, it's no secret that large information technology programs cost more money, time and labor to complete than originally anticipated.

It's accepted wisdom that two-thirds to three-quarters of IT programs are either over budget, not hitting their timelines or objectives, or "flat out cancelled for nonperformance," said Patricia Davis-Muffett, vice president of marketing for Robbins-Gioia LLC, an Alexandria, Va.-based project management consulting firm.

The Standish Group, a research advisory group, supports that viewpoint. Since 1994, the group has issued biennial research reports on the successful completion of IT projects in government and industry. To be successful, projects must be on time, on budget and meet user requirements. Programs, or ongoing operations, are typically composed of multiple projects, which have a beginning and an end.

In the group's 2000 report on federal, state and local governments, James Johnson, chairman of the Standish Group, said 24 percent met all those criteria, 50 percent didn't meet one or more of the criteria and 26 percent failed.

Although most failed IT projects are blamed on poor management, what remains a mystery is the rather slow adoption of program management practices, especially within governments, to properly oversee the delivery of IT projects in a timely and cost-efficient manner.

But industry experts say there's a renewed focus on program management that could be particularly helpful as governments suffer from budget revenue shortfalls. More and more agencies are requiring employees to have program management training and expertise, establishing program offices, requiring contractors to provide appropriate management oversight or hiring outside consulting firms to help with such projects.

"Actually it has improved greatly," Johnson said. Part of the success can be attributed to better project practices, he said, adding that agencies are also taking on smaller projects that they can complete faster.

Although program management has been around for three decades, it has been maturing the past five years in government as good practices are seeded into projects, said Andrew Anderson, senior management consultant at Robbins-Gioia, whose clientele is 70 percent government and 30 percent corporate.

Good program managers, who oversee multiple projects, must have a unique combination of skills, acting as "coordinators, orchestrators, expediters and politicians" to work with different people, agencies and even the media, Anderson said. "That takes a lot of personality. That takes a lot of personal coordination skills along with the skill sets to manage the program."

The Project Management Institute, a nonprofit group with almost 100,000 members, has been one of the biggest drivers of the profession, providing certification and standards, said J. Kent Crawford, who served as its president and a board member in the early 1990s. He estimated that 70 percent of the membership is composed of IT professionals.

"They saw a need for project management...and for a discipline to develop out of what otherwise has been an accidental profession because you very seldom find people coming out of college going right into a project management job," said Crawford, who is chief executive officer and founder of Havertown, Pa.-based Project Management Solutions Inc., a program management consulting firm. "The reason is there are only eight colleges in the world that offer a full four-year bachelor's degree or master's degree."

Recently, PM College, the corporate training and education division of Crawford's company, teamed up with Carnegie Mellon University's H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management to offer an IT specialty master's certificate for project management that addresses the unique requirements, management, terminology, methodologies and processes within technology, he said.

Although Crawford said government is slow in adopting program management, federal agencies such as NASA and the Defense Department stand out. DOD has the Defense Systems Management College, in which military officers can take a nine-month course on program management.

But according to Anderson, state governments — such as Michigan, California, Virginia and Minnesota — are "a little better at" program management than the federal government. He added that some states have created a program office, while other states perform that function outside of their technology agencies.

Johnson said he didn't think states were better than the federal government at program management, but because they deal with smaller projects, they might have more success. He said federal agencies are taking on smaller projects as well.

But despite state budget woes, Crawford said that project management initiatives are usually the last to be cut.

"It doesn't mean they're initiating it," he said. "But we are finding program management has enough significance and importance to state government organizations that it does stay within the budget and it does get funded, sometimes at a decreased level, but it does stay in anyhow."

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