May 01 2008

Order From Chaos

A university IT project-management office can make managing more predictable.

A university IT project-management office can make managing more predictable.

Project management is an intrinsically difficult organizational problem to solve because it rests on sometimes capricious assumptions and goals. For instance, probability and uncertainty play large roles in the process. Some of the existing management culture is based on outmoded technological assumptions, and a hierarchical view of decision-making can take hold. Shallow analysis can sometimes drive the process, too.

For at least a decade, it’s been all too common to see IT projects fail to meet their cost and delivery goals. To make matters worse, the larger the investment in IT, the greater the probability of project failure. What is the source of these deficiencies in project delivery, and how can it be overcome?

Those are the questions Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) had in mind when it faced an overhaul of its IT delivery system. The system encompasses 32 public higher education institutions in the state of Minnesota and serves more than 380,000 students, supported by an annual $46 million IT budget.

Under Chief Information Officer Ken Niemi’s leadership, MnSCU’s IT organization established a Portfolio Management Office to manage the entire lifecycle of IT projects, from project proposal to project sanction and project execution. In less than a year, MnSCU’s IT organization has transformed itself from a technology organization into a service organization in which project investment decisions are made through an open, objective and predictable process of selection and implementation.

All business proceeds on beliefs, or judgments of probabilities, and not on certainties.

— Charles William Eliot (Harvard University president, 1869–1909)

Before the management office was created, the organization:

  • viewed IT spending as a series of technology investments rather than simple investments. Lacking formal return on investment (ROI) guidance, political influence often trumped objectivity;
  • expected IT — rather than the business units — to select and prioritize project investments. This meant that project selection favored technology over enterprise value;
  • tolerated opaque and ad hoc decisions, because technology was considered inherently mysterious and, therefore, not subject to ordinary management review or scrutiny.

With the management office now up and running, the organization:

  • views technology as an enterprise investment that needs to align clearly with the overall mission and strategy of the institution. As a result, ROI-based project-management methodology is rapidly becoming an integral part of the organization’s cultural DNA;
  • manages IT investments as a portfolio of projects subject to ongoing optimization and review. At the heart of IT value management is the business case, which has become the official conveyor of value expectations throughout the project’s life cycle;
  • expects transparency in decision-making across all levels of the organization as part of a well-defined IT governance process. In addition to an Enterprise Investment Council, which sanctions and funds all major IT projects, a set of representative committees collaborates with IT throughout each project’s life cycle.

MnSCU is making inroads in shattering another myth endemic to academic institutions: the belief that a business approach to managing information technology is somehow antithetical to the academic culture.

In a world where uncertainty is the starting point for all decision-making, a transparent portfolio approach to project management leads to a shared sense that chosen investments are justified, objective and fair. And this in turn increases the likelihood that project targets will be realized, if not exceeded.