Program Management: A Balancing Act as It Enters E-Era

Program Management: A Balancing Act as It Enters E-Era<@VM>Staying on Task<@VM>Ahead of Trends<@VM>Where Business Lives

By James Schultz

Refurbishing the nation's strategic arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles would seem a tall order for any company. But not so for TRW Inc., whose expertise as the Air Force's ICBM systems engineering and technical assistance contractor dates to 1954. The real challenge for the Cleveland-based contractor was delivering promised savings.

In a 1997 contract proposal, the company said it could save the government at least $1.2 billion on sustainment costs through 2012 as it upgraded ballistic missile guidance systems, replaced key propulsion components and maintained overall readiness. TRW was confident it could apply 21st-century techniques and emerging software tools to make its ICBM operations both technologically effective and cost efficient.

According to Andy Cianciotto, TRW vice president of program management for the ICBM effort, the confidence has been well-placed. Three years into the 15-year Air Force contract, the company is on track with its commitments and has even found additional savings of $5 million.

"Computer technology has made project management much more efficient," Cianciotto said. "We're committed to fundamentally fewer people each year through 2012. The challenge is constant improvement in our processes so we can perform at the same level as we are today."

Government acquisition reform and downsizing have shifted business worth billions of dollars to the private sector. Projects that once were done in house by platoons of government workers now are outsourced routinely.

For TRW, as for its colleagues and competitors, this has meant not just more revenue but more day-to-day responsibility supervising and implementing programs. Having the right techniques and tools in place is therefore critical to success.

"We're in an era of unprecedented change," said Hugh Woodward, chairman of the board of the Project Management Institute of Newtown Square, Pa.

"Major corporations and all kinds of organizations, public as well as private, have turned to project management to get their work done. Project management addresses chronic problems ? making deadlines and keeping within cost ? and is a disciplined approach to managing change."

The rapid evolution of information technology holds both peril and promise. On the one hand, access to resources, in terms of both talent and equipment, has never been greater. Managers are encouraged to think across geography and time zones.

But project complexity is increasing even as project budgets grow slowly, if at all. The activities of dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people must be coordinated, often at widely dispersed locations.

Contracted performance parameters also demand unprecedented levels of quality assurance. Not surprisingly, project managers are hard pressed to meet such competing goals.

Increasingly, managers ? especially those directing Internet-intensive efforts ? are "faced with impractical deadlines heaped atop evolving requirements wrapped in a layer of infeasible quality goals," writes Jim Highsmith, director of the Cutter Consortium's E-Project Management Advisory Service and author of "E-Project Management: Harnessing Innovation and Speed."

Today's projects don't always mirror traditional expectations of predictability and top-down control, he said.

"Project management as a discipline is in flux, in transition between the old and new economy," Highsmith said. "The demands of projects now are different. The pace is quicker. People used to feel that things are fairly predictable. Today's projects are a lot more fluid."

Ultimately, Highsmith said, successful project management will demand incorporating a triad of behaviors traditionally thought incompatible: innovation, discipline and adaptability.

The scale and pace of many emerging projects is such that the more traditional techniques, once believed adequate, will no longer suffice. Because the pace of product development is accelerating, for example, incorporating change late in a project cycle is becoming a necessity. Responsiveness becomes just as important as planning.

"Where you end up with a project may not be where you start," Highsmith said. "It requires a different measure of success. There's more innovation and exploration at fairly rapid speeds. That's very different from the past."

Given project management's increasingly hectic pace, human expertise ironically is assuming ever greater importance. It is true, according to professionals, that there is more and better management software than ever. But what is essential is the knowledge and ability to successfully deploy those tools.

"Program management fundamentals are well-understood," said Kathy Walsh, program management and operations consultant for Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego. "What is crucial is having the right set of people in place who have both the knowledge and personality to implement them in the organization.

"There's a great supply of tools. You can write lots of processes, but without the right set of heads, the right set of eyes, they become shelfware," she said.

Murray Sewell

SAIC's project management savvy has led to the renewal of a project that it undertook for the Environmental Protection Agency. Known as Moses, for Mission Oriented Systems Engineering Support, the project was developed to re-engineer the way EPA managed data.

Because congressional legislation originally led to the establishment of most EPA programs, data was stovepiped, separated into discrete categories without interconnectivity. Information pertaining to the Clean Air Acts Amendments of 1990 existed in one office, for instance, while clean water data was maintained in another location. SAIC was able to upgrade and re-engineer the agency's information systems to make cross-communication possible.

In another project, announced in June, SAIC will provide support over six years to the Agriculture Department's Risk Management Agency. Services include analysis, engineering, maintenance, instal-
lation, integration, local-area and wide-area network and off-the-shelf software support.

The maintenance of the agency's hardware and software systems, in conjunction with the installation of the new network equipment and software systems, will leave the agency with an integrated office system.

SAIC also will explore means of improving the Risk Management Agency's procedures by identifying and recommending best practices, appropriate technologies and improved methodologies. SAIC will provide support to agency offices in Kansas City, Mo., and Washington as well as regional offices.

"You must communicate, motivate and get your team following your lead in line with what the end product will be," Walsh said. "You've got to find the skill set necessary to go and work the job. You're not going to get the program off and running if you don't staff it properly."

Proper staffing was uppermost on the minds of managers at Unisys Corp. of Blue Bell, Pa., when in 1997 the company began consolidating mainframes that process millions of tax returns annually for the Internal Revenue Service. By design, Unisys and the IRS operate from the same suite of offices.

According to Murray Sewell, director of sales and marketing for Unisys' Treasury Branch, physical proximity has encouraged quick communication that can resolve difficulties before they escalate.

Unisys' practice of "configuration management" has also proved valuable, Sewell said. As experts convene and generate ideas that could modify agreed-to procedures, those ideas are documented and reviewed by a high-level management team on their technical merit, adherence to schedule and their degree of risk. Should all criteria be met, any change must be officially approved before any action is taken.

"We don't have the luxury of having people try out ideas on their own," Sewell said. "We evaluate it first before anyone goes to work."

Thus far, Unisys has enabled the IRS to consolidate its mainframes to two sites in Tennessee and West Virginia from 12 sites spread across the United States. Now, eight upgraded mainframes (four each at the two remaining locations) handle the processing duties that 50 once did.

Given the increased efficiency, employees who once oversaw computer operations have been redeployed to customer-service positions. According to Sewell, because of the increased efficiency, the government is already saving money, and the savings are projected to balloon to hundreds of millions over the next decade.

The project itself will come in slightly under budget, with the final computer modifications scheduled to conclude the first week of December.By far, the most ambitious modifications to existing computer equipment came in making year 2000 date code fixes. For the first time, organizations in and out of government were forced to deal directly with the demands of a complicated project spread over vast distance, an undertaking that would affect thousands of machines and systems.

For managers in government, successful efforts to protect against a Y2K meltdown solidified project-management techniques as never before.

"There's increasing acceptance at government agencies as to the value of project management," said Laura Nash, director of civilian agencies for Robbins-Gioia, a consulting and project management services firm in Alexandria, Va.

"Y2K was one driver. For the first time, people were dealing with a large, complex project with a deadline. Now, with a downsizing work force, there's a need to specify repeatable processes and figure out how to leverage best practices," she said.

In time, Y2K complexity may seem modest as project management techniques are employed to archive and make available to a leaner work force the detailed skills of the highly experienced managers that government is losing to retirement and resignation.

The impending dearth of federal workers will force companies and agencies to codify practices, establish careful documentation and create repeatable protocols, all hallmarks of successful project management techniques and practices.

"Organizations are becoming process dependent and more people independent," Nash said "You have fewer people, and the ones who remain are less experienced. They don't immediately have the skills or tools to manage successfully."

One Robbins-Gioia offering, PMBoulevard, is an Internet-based product that aims to instantly deliver project-management services. PMBoulevard offers online access to a virtual project management office, training and knowledge centers, and personalized consulting services.

The site boasts both in-house and outside expertise, with a total of some 400 project management experts available for query. The site also provides news, links and other project management resources relating to the industry's latest trends.Although government may be responding to, and in some cases adopting, the best tenets of project management, experts generally believe that government will be a follower in the field and not a leader. In part, that's because government, given the nature and diversity of the services it delivers, must be stable enough to provide those services without interruption. Citizens would not tolerate too much instability.

"Part of the private sector is setting the pace for project management that will filter slowly into government," said the Cutter Consortium's Highsmith. "Govern-
ment projects still tend to be very linear: from doing a feasibility study, to budgeting money, to implementing requirements and then launching the project. Government is risk-adverse because we want them to be."

Nevertheless, state-of-the-art tools, many Internet based, will enable project team members to collaborate more efficiently. The so-far successful completion of the first stage of the International Space Station, and the scheduled arrival and construction of additional components over the next several years, may be harbinger of what's to come in less astral, but no less complex, Earth-based projects spread over time and space, in government and out.

Don't expect the human element to disappear, however.

Despite technological advance, the canniest manager of change remains human sensibility. Indeed, predicts A. Andrew Anderson, Robbins-Gioia account manager for civilian agencies, individuals with the right talents will be project management's real stars in the years and decades to come.

"If you're a techno-manager, able to move between the two cultures of technology and management, you'll have a job for the next 50 years," Anderson said. "You'll be managing infrastructure, IT, consultants, and you'll interface between internal and external customers. The program management office is where a lot of your business will live."

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