Why project management skills matter

IT departments in higher education have always been at the forefront of emerging technologies. Cool systems and new applications first appeared and were bandied about the backrooms of the technical staff. As the technologies incubated, gained a foothold and then became core applications for our institutions, what were once novel computer applications became mission-critical. In the past thirty years, we’ve seen the explosion of personal computers, the Internet, email, enterprise applications, learning management systems, online services and much more. Our small technology departments, germinated in academic areas, are now major cost centers for colleges and universities. They’re made up of several units…systems, network, academic support, information systems, user support, learning commons, telecom, stores and computer repairs. Technology budgets often amount to 10% (give or take) of total campus budgets.

We have CIO’s to run these ever-growing departments. The role of the CIO requires, in addition to a broad understanding of various technologies, business savvy. With all the funding and multi-year contracts involved, combined with the rapidly-changing software, network and security industries, our technology departments are maturing to be run more like the business they are. That may not always sell well in our higher ed culture, but there’s no question about it.

Project management methodologies have provided many technology departments with the framework they need to select, implement, sustain and develop technologies on our campuses. It is a disciplined approach to containing costs of what can be multi-year, expensive (short- and long-term) software applications that change the very nature of how we work. Good project charters align executives around the core business and academic drivers for new technologies. They lay out assumptions about cost, the people needed, the business practices that will be impacted and how decisions will be made. Project schedules lay out the work and timelines to mitigate cost overruns that plague unorganized projects.

Project management is also a framework for managing organizational change. Initiated under the guise of a new technology or organizational initiative, new systems require changes in business processes and personal work habits. They must be learned and adapted, often at the expense of old behaviors.

On a small scale, think about an upgrade to a new computer and operating system. Years ago, you learned what was then your new computer. You set it up, configured it and learned how it works to get your work done. It may not have been easy, but over time it worked predictably and efficiently. When you replace that computer with a new one, things are not where they used to be. You may not have all the add-ons. Tools and menu bars look different. You have to RE-LEARN it! You curse, you experience a period of frustration over having to waste time on this, but you endure, for better or worse.

Take this example on a grander scale. Your organization wants to upgrade its student information or course management system. For whatever reasons, the decision is made at the top and there is a clear mandate. Your project team will need to review options available and then select a new technology product that will change the very nature of how the most fundamental processes of our campus work. Many of the people who used the old systems for years were adept. Familiarity and routines worked. When the new systems are cutover, all those routines will change. Sure, there will be training and communications, but the fact is, all those people will need to change their habits!

Project management may also be applied to non-technical projects, too. Many schools are exploring integration of library, technology and academic services in what are called ‘learning commons.’ What might appear to be sensible to the lay person is a cultural integration of epic proportions. This type of project is organizational integration of very different cultures. The overlap between what they do is significant, but combining the caffeinated, fast-paced, and youthful culture of technology with the venerable, staid culture of libraries offers some interesting dynamics.

Yet here is where project management can be helpful. Learning commons concepts clearly focus on the changing needs of students, faculty and patrons. They know not of our organizational and cultural differences. Rather, they want access to computers and research materials. They want multimedia equipment to help integrate their ideas through text, audio and visual means. They want experts to assist them with the computers and the information sources. Why not put it all in one place? The schools that have done this have seen their libraries and technology services transformed. But only with good project scope, executive leadership and advocacy, a structured timeline and key people involved will this happen. Otherwise, it will be difficult to get past the un-likeminded staffs of two traditionally separate units.

Definition of Project Management

  • A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service. It implies:
  • a defined objective and/or deliverable
  • a specific timeframe
  • a budget
  • unique specifications
  • working across organizational boundaries

Project management is a disciplined way of thinking and managing. There are several key components of projects:

  • Project charters: the what, why, who, where and when of major organizational initiatives
  • Work breakdown structures: definition and delineation of all the major categories of work
  • Project schedule: Once the work is defined, the key tasks are injected into a schedule around which a realistic timeframe is derived
  • Decision-making structure: Decision levels and scope defined at executive, project and team levels
  • Project budget: an outline of initial costs, long-term costs for people, software, hardware, training, events and documentation
  • Communication plan: keeping stakeholders and project participants informed (bi-directional)
  • Team structure: engaging the people whose skills, experience and aptitude are best suited to the job

Besides those organizational tools, project management requires time and attention to the softer skills. Because the very nature of project management is introduce new technologies that require some kind of change on those in your organization, project managers need to be facilitators of change. Good processes are required to make and manage decisions, build strong and diverse teams, communicate effectively through a number of means and continually remind people of the larger goals and objectives that drive the project.

Selection of a project manager is a key step. Not everyone is cut out for it. You need to want to organize, to lead and to carry the torch. You need to be comfortable with ambiguity and long hours. You need to have a thick skin and positive attitude. And most of all, you need to be willing. However, there is no better way to advance your career by filling this vital need within an organization. You may not an expert in all the areas of project management, but by stepping up, you agree to see that everything gets done. You surround yourself with people of complementary skills. You also get exposure to the executive team members in ways you may not have had in the past.

Those are the things that will show you are ready for advancement in your career.

Where will your technology career be in 5 years?

So, you want to be a technology manager.