Communication is key when it comes to ICT project management, which can be an intimidating process, writes Róisín Kiberd
ICT project management can be intimidating. Before you begin to consider the challenges which can — and probably will — arise during the project itself, how can you be sure you’re working with the best project manager? Choosing the right partner is half the battle, and making sure the right stakeholders are engaged from the start will set you on the path to success.
Trudi Brook, programme manager at BT Ireland, stresses the importance of talking through plans thoroughly, and allowing for a period of business assessment before starting a project. “It comes back to having the right people in the room from the beginning, to talk through what you’re going to deliver. It can be overwhelming for clients; that’s why it’s necessary to have these conversations up front.”
Communication is key: project managers report clients frequently making requests for something when they don’t actually know what it means. “We’ll very often send out digital teams to do a lot of pre-sales activity and research. What is it really that you’re trying to achieve? What are you trying to get out of it? Then you can start to approach the issue in bite-sized chunks, and move through those to a wider programme of activity,” said Brook.
Clients look for consistency in governance, with thorough risk assessment and consistency of approach. For everyone involved, it’s best to meet and discuss the project as early as possible. The average project cannot simply be appointed and left with the management team: it requires a little work from the client, too, in the form of feedback.
Sarah Anderson, operations manager at Evros, reported that while clients will arrive with a clear plan to digitise an activity they might currently do manually, the technology might not save them time if it’s simply applied in exactly the same way. “They’re just repeating themselves in a digital way; they haven’t actually streamlined the process. This is why business analysis is important: Our role is to analyse the business and identify efficiencies, so they can be more effective once the process is made digital.”
Negotiation over money, inevitably, can present a significant challenge. “The main challenge is identifying a fixed price and the scope of the product upfront,” said Anderson. “Most clients will come to us with one in mind, but even if you’ve delivered the same service several times before, the costs might change depending on the client. You’re delivering them into unique client environments, and each one is different to the environment before. In every case you’ll end up facing challenges which you simply cannot have foreseen.”
Leaving room for errors or delays in the budget can help with this, but the other issue is clients who demand instant results, without thinking about long-term consequences. “A lot of clients like to hit the ground running and see bang for their buck straight away. I would always argue the case for two or three days of effective business analysis at the start could save you massive amount of reworking later. It’s likely that work done in a rushed way at the start will need to be altered and expanded-upon later . . . To keep things cost-effective, you really should invest in that crucial upfront planning,” said Anderson.
Leona Tector, professional services manager at Datapac, noted that building a good relationship with a client, and employing a lean approach, can make a difference here: “Instead of a customer seeing a quotation with ‘three days’ project management’ on it, and them saying they don’t need that much time, part of our job is to package our service as lean project management, and make it as effective as possible.”
On both sides it’s important to talk through costs and account for obstacles along the way: “Sometimes someone will come to us with a fixed budget, and by the time we finish that project the budget might have doubled. A challenge I see is that the client wants to get from A to B in the fastest time possible, but sometimes the fastest approach is not the most effective.”
Consider also your reasons for undertaking this project — is growth your objective? And if so, will the solutions you implement during this project sufficiently scale?
Tector said: “I’ve seen situations where a client implements a solution and is happy with it, but in six months finds that it’s not scalable enough, due to budget constraints at that time. Expanding the budget at the start can end up costing less in the long run.”
While some clients hesitate to embrace change, others expect a lot of it. Kerry-Anne Pollock, IT programme manager at Ergo, said: “The trend at the moment is toward digital transformation. It’s on over 80 per cent of company’s roadmaps. It’s industry agnostic, transport, retail, financial, everyone’s talking about it.”
But transformation isn’t always instant: managing expectations and goals is part of the process. “I think in a lot of cases, people will talk about digital transformation, but they don’t always know what it is. It’s a huge change to fundamentally deliver, going from legacy infrastructure to a new one . . . We have to translate strategies into tangible business outcomes. Everyone wants digital transformation, but it’s crucial to make sure that aligns with the individual company’s goals,” said Pollock.
“At every stage we have the challenge of how we manage our projects, and the organisational structure of companies,” said Viktor Kovacevic, VP and GM at Comtrade Digital Services.
“Each specific industrial revolution throughout history brought change to how projects were managed: in the age of mass reproduction, we had what is called the waterfall approach. Then with computers we entered into a new space, where we had to be more agile and adjustable to stage, and the speed of the process accelerated. And today even more is possible.
“The best example of how things have changed is probably assembly lines — before it took several years to deliver a new car model, for example. But with computer automation the process was shortened and became more agile. Today agility is practically default. And today we have customer-oriented selling, so you’re not only assembling a car, you’re assembling a car to fit with a customer’s specifications.”
Project management now needs to account for this consumer-oriented market — think of the customer service and highly customised user experiences offered by Amazon, which Kovacevic cites as a world leader. “Every 70 seconds Amazon releases a new version of their digital store without us realising it. Imagine how complex the technology structure needs to be for them to do this?”
Another industry leader is one of Comtrade’s partners, Ryanair, which has radically disrupted the aviation industry over the years. “Ryanair don’t see themselves as an airline company anymore; they see themselves as technology company with an airline attached.”
Kovacevic identified a challenge in how customers are looking for agile suppliers, while they themselves are looking for customers who are more predictable. This can pose a challenge, in striking a balance. “Of course, within IT technology itself the expectations are not the same as they were years ago. We’re not only changing how we manage projects and teams; we’re changing the overall approach, and definition of project management.”
Customer input is more easily recorded, processed and integrated into business practice. “Every company needs to take account of that; without customer influence, there is no product.”
Experts note that the industry itself is changing. Pollock said: “From my own perspective, the traditional project manager role is gone. People expect something else instead, more like a thought leader. We’re tasked with coming up with solutions faster, and achieving change.”
Often the project manager not only drives, but mediates the implementation technology, explaining it to senior managers and ensuring buy-in from the very start. “Years ago, a PM would have been seen as someone who came in and planned and controlled, but the role itself has evolved into so much more. We need to have a solid understanding of the technology itself, if we’re bringing it in.”
This task is made difficult, too, by the evolving shape of the modern workplace. With a client’s employees often outsourced and scattered around the globe, video-conferencing and Skype for Business might have to stand in for the traditional boardroom.
Brook said: “It’s no longer just us and a single customer. We have multiple outsourced bodies, and it’s about making sure all those bodies work together. Very often you’ll see people working for a single company, but spread all over the world. As in all business, we’re seeing a lot more work done over teleconferences and Skype calls. To an extent, it’s still preferable to get people into a room together, but that may not always be possible, so you need to use technology to your advantage.”
Project management has always been made up of three elements —quality, scope and timeline. But these are changeable, depending on the project. Kovacevic said. “Some projects, for example in the airline industry, put an emphasis on quality (and safety), while say Amazon will put an emphasis on timeline. Above all, on the suppliers side, they need to be agile. Only agile companies will be able to survive.”