Online Extra: Raising the bar for project management

Linda Salac, Health and Human Services System

David S. Spence

As the government embraces project management, evolutionary pressures are reshaping attitudes and an industry

Standing on the dais in a hotel ballroom packed with private-sector project managers and consultants on a sultry night this summer, Mark Forman, then the federal government's e-government evangelist, preached a message that was music to their ears.

'We need qualified project managers,' he said, citing statistics that more than a third of some 1,300 federal IT projects don't have certified managers on board.

Forman's remarks that night, to members of a regional chapter of the Project Management Institute, repeated a theme familiar to those who followed his work in molding e-government efforts: Bring best practices from the private sector to government IT projects.

While project managers have been around for decades and the federal road map for information resources management is nearly 8 years old, federal IT managers are still wading into uncertain waters, some with understandable trepidation.

They face a tidal wave of issues, including outdated computer systems, internal agency and Capitol Hill politics, ingrained work cultures and the simple pressure of doing more with less.

For many, Forman was the essential agent of change needed to shake up the system.

'The resistance to change is always there,' said Linda Salac, chairwoman of a government interest working group at the Project Management Institute, the not-for-profit association that certifies project managers. Salac is a business analyst for Nebraska's Health and Human Services System.

'This is a very old stereotype, I know, but in the government there are people who have been doing the same things the same way for 20 years,' noted Lou Russell, president of Russell Martin & Associates, an Indianapolis consulting company that specializes in program management. 'In government, they have a protocol and they don't break it.'

Forman, whose dinner speech to the project managers came days before he announced he would leave the federal government to return to the private sector, is credited with helping to tear down those stereotypes. And his replacement, former Energy Department CIO Karen S. Evans, is promising to carry on the mission with gusto, in keeping with the Bush administration's emphasis on e-government, return on investment and results.

Industry executives and analysts say the months ahead will be the most promising and challenging for IT project management, a nascent field that is aggressively promoting certification and training standards for project leaders.

The Center for Business Practices, in a survey of readers of a trade journal earlier this year, found that 54 percent of the organizations had been practicing project portfolio management for less than two years. Eight out of 10 had developed their processes in-house.

And while the management software industry itself is a relative infant, analysts say a shakeout is almost certain as financial and business pressures force mergers and as users demand more muscle in program management software-a field dominated by Microsoft Corp.-as well as specialized applications.

'We expect this market to become more demanding, as additional competitors enter and pressure vendors to hone their capabilities,' according to a research report prepared earlier this year by META Group, a research and consulting firm in Stamford, Conn.

License revenues for program portfolio management software are predicted to reach $420.6 million this year, up 18 percent from last year, according to a mid-summer report from Gartner Inc., another Stamford, Conn., research and advisory firm. One reason: Companies and governments are looking to cut costs in a tight economy and better project management can help them save money.

Analysts and consultants agree that the federal government, which spends nearly $60 billion a year on IT, is a promising growth area and applaud the foundation that Forman laid.

'The Mark Forman era and what Mark brought to government will probably be looked at as a milestone event in raising the awareness of certified (project managers),' observed Roger D. Beatty, a consultant in project management who works for Information Management Consultants Inc., a McLean, Va., professional services company known as IMC. 'Mark's contribution will be viewed as a watershed event that will help create opportunity for years to come-and raise the bar.'

Beatty, a member of the board of the Washington PMI chapter, said more certified managers are looking to make the move into government, especially as private-sector work stays flat. 'There's a lot of upside potential.'

PMI, founded in 1969 and based in Newton Square, Pa., issues Project Management Professional certification. In addition to passing a rigorous examination, candidates for a PMP certificate must have substantial on-the-job experience and academic degrees. Dozens of colleges and universities offer program management degrees and federal agencies have in-house training programs. In just the last year, PMI membership soared almost 20 percent, to 114,465 worldwide. Nearly 70 percent of its members are in the United States.

In August, the Office of Personnel Management for the first time gave formal definition to the title of IT project manager, spelling out critical job functions, skills and pay levels. Projects valued at more than $5 million must have a certified project manager, according to Office of Management and Budget rules.

'At times, it seems like we have been doing (project management) by default,' said Salac, the Nebraska government business analyst. 'Project management is slowly being accepted.'

Salac said managers face a number of obstacles, including promoting projects.

'A lot of people have to be visionary,' she said. 'In terms of information technology, a lot of people think they need it now. They do not think of it in terms of three to five years,' the average length of a major IT project.

'We are still not proficient in selling this to top management,' Salac said.

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