USDA shows its project management chops

In-house training program takes managers beyond the basics

Willing workers

The Agriculture Department's project management training program requires a strong commitment from its participants. They are required to spend one week a month in training for five months and complete assignments in between classroom weeks.

You might think USDA would have to consider offering a less rigorous, shorter program or online training to get workers to agree to do the training.

But that hasn't been the case.

'The lesson we have learned is that people are interested in improving their skills and knowledge in this area,' said Chris Niedermayer, USDA's associate chief information officer. 'They are clamoring to be part of the class.'

USDA has run 23 groups of employees through the program, and there is always a waiting list.

'I would encourage other agencies to invest in these types of programs as well,' Niedermayer said. 'Where there are hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, it is worth it to spend a few thousand dollars to get someone up to speed to do project management well.'

Avoiding Problems: 'We have very few problems across our portfolio with our projects staying on schedule and within budget,' said Chris Niedermayer, USDA's Associate Chief Information Officer.

Henrik G. de Gyor

Every year, the Standish Group International of West Yarmouth, Mass., releases its CHAOS report detailing the extent of information technology project failure.

Success rates typically are about 30 percent and losses are in the tens of billions of dollars. And federal agencies are not exempt from this trend.

'Projects fail across the government because we just don't put enough emphasis on having a good project manager,' said Chris Niedermayer, the Agriculture Department's associate chief information officer.

To improve its project management capabilities, USDA began an in-house training program in 2001 that has now graduated nearly 500 trained project managers, with two-thirds attaining their Project Management Professional (PMP) certification from the Project Management Institute. The result has been better project execution.

'We have very few problems across our portfolio with our projects staying on schedule and within budget,' Niedermayer said.

In designing its project management training program, the department wanted to do much more than just get its employees certified. Plenty of courses are available to help someone pass the PMP examination, but the department wanted employees who would transform the culture of the IT organization.

'Having someone with a PMI certification who doesn't have the context of how it works in your organization ' especially how it works around IT investments ' doesn't really buy you anything,' Niedermeyer said. 'We created a program that integrates the concepts of project management with capital planning, enterprise architecture and managing projects with' earned-value management, a way to measure project progress.

Back to school

Robbins-Gioia's project management consulting office in Alexandria, Va., is conducting the training, which consists of four tracks. Three of those tracks are for project team members, senior managers and executive-level employees. They last from a few hours to three days and teach participants the skills they need to oversee or work on projects.

'One of the biggest reasons projects fail is a lack of executive-level sponsorship, so they wanted to make sure the executives were involved,' said Jennifer Stanford, director of Robbins-Gioia's workforce performance group. 'They also wanted to make sure that the team members had a basic level of project management knowledge.'

Project managers undergo a far more rigorous program, consisting of one week of training per month for five months. The first week covers project initiation; the next two cover project planning and control; and then comes a week focusing on capital planning and investment control. The final week focuses on preparing for the PMP exam.

The courses are taught by an instructor and offer additional online resources that the students can use between classes. The students get hands-on practice and mentoring in each aspect of managing a project exactly in line with the USDA's current practices.

'We update components of the program on almost a monthly basis to ensure it aligns with the latest requirements of Exhibit 300, the OMB's latest thinking about earned value management or National Institute of Standards and Technology standards changes,' Niedermayer said. 'We try to keep it fresh relative to the topics of the day.'

Between the classroom sessions, participants get to practice what they have learned on the job and share those experiences in the next training session. This mix of study and practical application increases their ability to use what they have learned on the job.

'The program really focuses on the mentoring and hands-on aspects,' Stanford said. 'A one-week course can prepare you to pass the PMP exam, but that is not enough for an organization to input behavioral changes.'

Since the program's inception, more than 1,000 USDA IT employees have completed at least one of the tracks, and there has been a notable change in the culture. Niedermayer said the number of business cases on the management watch list has dropped during the past two years from 34 to 17.

The agency's Exhibit 300 average scores have also risen a full two points in the past few years, but because criteria change from year to year, it is hard to use that as a benchmark, Niedermayer said. Nevertheless, they do show that 'we are doing better as a department in general,' he said. For the past three years, USDA's entire project portfolio has also been within the 10 percent EVM tolerance range, which he attributes to better project management and the training that produced it.

'The program has had a profound impact on the quality of upfront planning and the execution of those plans,' Niedermayer said. 'You have to take the training program seriously.'

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