Four Keys to Better IT Project Management

By Dennis Pierce

Having an effective project management process can mean the difference between the success and failure of campus ed-tech initiatives. Here are four essential project management needs.

According to research from the Standish Group, 52 percent of large-scale IT projects run over budget, finish behind schedule, or fail to meet stakeholders’ expectations—and 41 percent are abandoned altogether or have to be restarted.

Yet, organizations that have an effective project management process enjoy much greater success rates. In a survey from PM Solutions, respondents with a project management office (PMO) said their PMO contributed to a 23-percent drop in the number of failed projects and a 35-percent increase in the number of projects delivered under budget.

Although Bowling Green State University (BGSU) in Ohio does not have a separate office dedicated to project management, the university does have a well-established project management process within its IT department.

During a recent webinar hosted by TeamDynamix, two campus IT executives described how the university has built a successful project management culture that has led to improved IT outcomes. Here are four key takeaways from BGSU’s experience.

Have someone on your staff who is trained in project management best practices.

“We have two full-time project managers on our staff. They spend a lot of time developing tools, techniques, and standards,” said Phyllis Short, ERP applications manager for BGSU.

These individuals have been trained in methodologies from the Project Management Institute (PMI) and its Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), the global standard for project management best practices.

Understanding these methodologies can help colleges and universities develop more effective processes for prioritizing, scheduling, managing, and reporting on the status of IT projects—which will lead to higher success rates.

“We are proof that you don’t necessarily need a PMO in order to be successful,” Short said. But it is important to follow project management standards and best practices, she noted—and having someone on staff who is properly trained in these techniques is critical in applying them.

Understand that one size doesn’t fit all.

There are many different approaches to project management. For instance, using the “waterfall” methodology, team members follow a chronological sequence of tasks until their objectives are complete. This is very different from the “agile” methodology, in which project objectives are defined at the outset—but the final deliverable can change. In an agile approach, the project team works in iterative cycles, continually evaluating the results and then changing direction if needed.

Applying the same methodology to every project won’t work, because each project is different and therefore has different requirements. Adam Petrea, senior IT system analyst for BGSU, described how his institution looks at three important factors when deciding which project management approach to use:

  • The nature of the application. “A team that’s managing a very structured system, like our ERP system, would typically use a waterfall methodology,” he explained, because they must plan around a sequence of events required to support the system.
  • The project requirements and timeline. Is it one big implementation, or numerous smaller enhancements? Does the schedule allow for flexibility, or is a quick turnaround needed? If the project requires a series of enhancements, and there is enough time for multiple testing and iteration, then an agile methodology might work best.
  • Sponsor involvement. “Different stakeholders require different methods of updates, and their level of involvement varies greatly,” Petrea said. If they prefer to receive higher-level milestone reports, those are easier to deliver with a waterfall approach. If they’re very involved, that fits better with an agile approach.

Focus on communicating both internally and externally.

Transparency is essential in earning stakeholders’ trust and support. Before starting a project, clearly describe its scope and the steps you will take to complete it, so you are setting appropriate expectations.

“We use upfront planning time to describe our approach, and why we’re doing it this way—and it seems like that goes a long way,” Petrea said.

Once a project is under way, give regular updates in the manner that stakeholders require.

“Our project managers meet weekly with our CIO, where they identify issues that might affect the timeline or impact the delivery of projects,” Short said. “Team members have regular project meetings to keep everybody who’s on that team up to date. Externally, our CIO sends out a weekly report. He identifies which projects have been completed, what percentage of ongoing projects are complete, which timelines have changed, and what new projects have been added. We also have business relationship management meetings once a month, where department heads tell us what IT projects might be coming and how we can help them. And our CIO meets monthly with executive sponsors and shows them dashboards for each project affecting their area.”

She concluded: “We try to be as transparent as possible.”

Make sure you have powerful project management tools.

Transparency is a whole lot easier when you have the right tools to manage and report on projects. Colleges and universities will often have separate departments using different project management tools, but a single, unified approach gives leaders easy visibility into the status of projects campus-wide.

BGSU uses the Project Portfolio Management (PPM) tools built into the TDX platform from TeamDynamix to manage the entire lifecycle of projects.

“It has helped us to have an application that receives project requests from across our campus and allows us to work through the governance process that we established and report to stakeholders in a very clear manner,” Petrea said. “That was something we didn’t have before our TDX implementation. Now, we’re able to track requests, track statuses and tasks, and directly assign responsibility of those to certain resources. That has had a positive impact on how our internal customers view and value our process.”

It also helps provide accountability. “When someone submits a project request or something needs to be done, it doesn’t go into a black hole,” he explained. “It’s very visible to everyone. The CIO knows what projects are going on and what resources are assigned—and there is someone who’s held accountable.”

Dennis Pierce is a freelance writer who has been covering education and technology for 20 years. [email protected]

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