The culture clash in project management

Like many of his colleagues in the federal government today, Mike Cullen was educated in the school of hard knocks.

The environmental engineer-turned-project manager joined the Environmental Protection Agency 20 years ago when those with a technical degree were automatically considered management material. It was two different skill sets. But no one seemed to care.

'If you needed to do some sort of research project or develop an IT application, because you had an IT background, you also got to be the project manager,' he said. 'But just because you're good at one does not necessarily mean you're good at the other. There were a lot of lessons learned through on-the-job training.'

EPA, along with much of the government, has come a long way since its initial brush with project management. But most agencies have not come far enough.

'It's not yet ingrained and it should be by now,' said Lou Russell, president of Indianapolis-based program management consulting firm Russell Martin & Associates. 'Project management is nothing new. It hasn't changed since the pyramids.'

Still today, she notes, federal IT departments continue to promote those with technical training into project management posts. 'They don't always have the skills and supposedly they're just going to learn it somehow,' Russell said. 'It's frustrating.'

The culture clash

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing project managers today, however, is one of culture.

By most accounts, senior executives have long dismissed the importance of project management methodologies. That's partly because the job description remains so poorly defined and partly because they don't seem to know where project management fits in.

'Agencies have always said they did, but they haven't really recognized project management as a discipline,' said Cullen, an IT project manager for EPA's Office of Environmental Information in Washington 'We could do better if we get a little more formal about it.'

Will Brimberry agrees.

The project and program manager for the Office of Governmentwide Policy at the General Services Administration said the shear scope of the federal government makes it tough to develop a consensus on how PM should be employed. 'There's no real standard,' he said. 'We still don't really know what a project manager looks like.'

Worse yet, project managers themselves don't always understand their roles.

'A project is something that should have a definable beginning and a definable end,' Cullen said. 'Unfortunately, with most of the stuff I see, we don't always start off with that firm of an idea. We've got enough money to get started and we move off in a certain direction. When things go bad, we're always trying to catch up to get back on track but that's hard to do. It's like the camel's nose under the tent.'

That's where Cullen is trying to impart change.

'The newest thing is that I'm trying to shift into a role where I'm not the subject matter expert. I'm the project manager,' he said. 'I keep track of deliverables, the scheduling and cost. I do quantitative measurement of how we're doing.'

The winds of change

Project management has taken on a growing importance in the federal government as agencies look to maximize resources in a tight budget environment.

The Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 added extra incentive, requiring agencies to operate IT investments more efficiently and prioritize those that advance the agencies' strategic goals. To that end, the Office of Management and Budget now requires agencies to justify IT expenditures before granting project approval.

'In addition to the down economy putting the squeeze on IT budgets, there's also a sense that IT is no longer being viewed as this mysterious, supernatural investment and that it should be monitored like other investments,' said Matt Light, research director for IT research group Gartner of Stamford, Conn.

At the same time, the body of evidence that project management yields results has grown, helping convince one-time naysayers.

Done well, it can produce an immediate financial return of between 10 percent and 15 percent, said Richard Buchannan, vice president of IT research firm META Group in Stamford, Conn. That figure can climb as high as 25 percent when such practices are used to reduce duplication, he said.

Buchannan and Light were quick to quell concerns that greater efficiency ultimately results in job losses.

'It does come up, but it's not an inevitable development,' Light said. 'When it works well, program management provides for a more sustainable day-to-day work-life for team members.'

Borrowing from business

Project management is simple in theory: utilize resources (including IT assets) at maximum efficiency to deliver results on budget and on time. Program management goes hand in hand, taking a broader look at the agency's overall priorities to ensure projects selected advance those goals.

Both principles have long guided Big Business decision-making. Predicated on profit and investment returns, however, such commercial practices have at times been at odds with government objectives.

Of course, the goal of PM remains the same whether applied to public or private sector. But with contractors and federal managers speaking different languages, players in the field have had a tough time communicating.

The Defense Department has tried to address that issue. Its Defense Acquisition University created an extension to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBok) to help contractors and foreign allies more clearly understand the federal procurement process.

PMBoK, the industry standard set forth by the Project Management Institute, describes the sum knowledge within the profession. It includes proven practices for managing: scope, time, cost, quality, human resources, communication (performance reporting), risk analysis and procurement.

The DOD university also teaches project managers commercial standards for buying systems engineering equipment ' among other things. In years past, the department operated under its own set of military standards.

'We're moving more and more toward commercial standards,' said Bill Bahnmaier, a retired program manager for the Marine Corps assault amphibian vehicle projects. He currently volunteers at the university.

'Rather than DOD creating our own specifications, we utilize the commercial ones so we're all using the same sheet music,' Bahnmaier said. 'It makes procurement easier and we're saving ourselves a lot of time and overhead.'

People who need people

As the government takes steps to adapt commercial PM practices, however, many believe that overcoming the obstacles facing IT project managers today will have to begin with certification.

'Right now there's a major labor gap in terms of qualified program managers capable of looking at a project from a systems level and understanding what's required to execute that program,' said Shawn O'Rourke, vice president of American Systems Corp., a risk management services firm focused on project management.

Many agencies, including EPA, already offer in-house training for project managers. A growing number also require PMI's Project Management Professional certification before granting employment.

Shelly K. Schwartz is a freelance writer from Maplewood, N.J. with 10 years experience covering business- and finance-related news.

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