Projects Get More Troublesome

As IT moves from maintenance to more complex projects, expect bigger headaches.

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Increased globalization is contributing to the complexity of projects and of project management, says Mark Showers, CIO at St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. "We have finally gotten away from doing a lot of silo projects," he says. "For example, Monsanto is on a single instance of SAP, and you typically have people from all around the world working on a project."

For large projects - typically, more than $5 million - that are geographically distributed, the $8.5 billion agricultural biotechnology firm has found a project management innovation that Showers calls "three-headed leadership." The troika consists of a business manager from the country, acquired firm or business unit that will be the primary user of a new system; an enterprise corporate manager from Monsanto's St. Louis headquarters; and an IT manager associated with the user country, acquisition or business unit.

The arrangement brings more leadership to bear and more "ownership - more skin in the game," Showers says. He says it reflects a realization that "IT projects" are rarely only about IT anymore. "Projects rarely fail because of technology," he notes.

As CIO at Wall Homes Inc. in Arlington, Texas, Andrew Brimberry has to stretch a lean staff. He says one way to streamline internal communication and take some of the burden off of project managers at the small, recently formed home construction firm is to have programmers sit in on requirements definition meetings with end users.

"That does take time away from coding, but [when coders] understand directly from the user what the project goals are, they do a much better job," he says. "It's a sacrifice that has always paid off for us."

A deep understanding of the business is vital for IT at Wall Homes, Brimberry says, because construction managers in each major city have the right to manage their work as they see fit. For that reason, it's important for systems to be readily adaptable to changing and sometimes conflicting requirements, he says.

Managing Projects on a Budget

While IT managers at companies facing robust growth in 2008 are likely to be challenged by stepped-up demand for projects, those experiencing financial uncertainty or retrenchment have a different sort of problem, says Danny Siegel, director of worldwide technology engineering at Pfizer Inc. The New York-based pharmaceutical company's sales have been flat for four years, and it has seen recent steep declines in the sales of some of its major drugs.

The problem at such times is that the business units that use IT have cut staff and are facing budget squeezes too, so they are less able to provide vital support for IT projects, Siegel says. "So the project manager goes to the customer groups and says, 'Help me define what we are trying to do,' and the customer group says, 'Thanks for asking, but we have no people.'"

Still, Pfizer has managed to sidestep a shortage in project management support by outsourcing most of its IT. What was once project management has morphed into vendor management, Siegel says. The job of internal IT managers has increasingly become one of setting standards and ensuring consistency and repeatability across projects.

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