CIOs scramble for the right project managers

Boral’s Sally Milne knows how important it is to find good people when driving major change. Yet many CIOs report challenges finding the right project managers to meet growing pressure to deliver projects on time and on budget.

CIOs are desperate for project managers.

According to polling by Forrester Research, the pressure to deliver projects on time and on budget puts project management skills atop the list of hiring priorities for a majority of CIOs in 2007. In fact, 59% told the research firm they plan to train their staff in project management this year; another 29% said they will hire project managers.

But the talent, Forrester said, is in short supply.

Forrester analyst Samuel Bright, author of the report, said IT staff members, "particularly those in technical roles, struggle to make the transition to project management roles." According to Bright, they lack the training, experience and business knowledge to make the leap. Meanwhile, CIOs blame the educational institutions, complaining that academia is "failing to meet the needs of the enterprise by not emphasising project management skills," he said.

Outsourcing looms large

Many of the CIOs interviewed by Forrester said they are "de-prioritising" hiring for the so-called commodity skills, relying instead on third-party providers or outsourcing to get the job done.

Twenty-three percent said they plan to hand off responsibility for packaged application support to a third-party provider, while another 11% said they will rely on contractors to provide support; 18% plan to outsource application maintenance skills this year, and another 9% will contract for them. Legacy programming is also being farmed out this year, with 23% of those interviewed saying they will outsource and 16% planning to contract to fill legacy needs.

The trend toward outsourcing is creating demand for procurement skills. More than half of IT leaders, 55%, told Forrester they plan to train their staff to better manage third-party relationships, negotiate contracts, assess vendor risk and monitor service-level agreements.

Bringing rigour to the delivery of IT systems is a big theme this year, too. Sixty percent of CIOs will pour money into training employee in change management. The goal is to improve the uptime, integrity and security of systems.

Nearly as many CIOs said they plan to increase service management training, citing the growing popularity of ITIL as a means of process improvement, the report found. The adoption of ITIL service management training "heralds a larger shift from technology-oriented management to service-oriented management," Forrester's Sam Bright said.

That shift has been a major focus at construction supplies giant Boral, which has used ITIL to guide a major consolidation effort to standardise and improve service delivery within its Boral Shared Business Services (SBS) business unit. SBS was created in 2005 as the combination of a financial services business process unit and the company's IT support capabilities, but process differences and ongoing cultural issues made the transition as a difficult one.

Well aware that ITIL was the way to resolve the problem but also aware that staff weren't going to be quick to embrace change, project champions Rob Lutz, project director of planning and Sally Milne, manager of process support and improvement, initially let the organisation "feel the pain of the marriage" to increase buy-in. "When we finally brought the tool in, people were a lot more supportive," says Milne.

Staffing the ITIL project proved to be a critical point in the reinvention of SBS. With a paucity of formal project management qualifications within SBS, it was necessary to create a team with the right mix of skills. Training was part of the change, but Milne says another key part of the recruitment effort was ensuring that the employees could combine project management skills with contagious enthusiasm for the methodology that was being adopted.

"We were very picky about the IT people we wanted and brought in these process descriptions from the beginning," she explains. "There are some people that run things from the beginning, and some that run them operationally; we needed a combination of the two. We needed people who would be evangelists for their processes, and get others to buy into them. It was very important to select the right staff; we didn't just nominate people and push them into the role. They had to be people that make their presence known."

Artist, technician, administrator

The unmet demand for project managers comes as no surprise to Kurt Sowa, IT director at Ugg boot maker Deckers Outdoor Corp. Projects tend to come and go in the lifecycle of a company, Sowa said, so companies rarely have a stash of project managers from which to draw. But good project managers, he added, are hard to find under any circumstances because of the nature of the job.

"PMs are part artist, part technician and part administrator," Sowa said. Not to mention ambassadors.

Good project managers must constantly sell the project, Sowa said. They must keep all constituents in the loop, deal with changing customer demands and report back to upper management, which, he added, is getting its own status reports from the business side.

While project managers don't have to be technical experts in his view, they do need to understand the technology well enough to tout its benefits and explain its constraints to every user group that technology touches. Gifted communicators and good people-persons, the good project manager can also ride herd. Said Sowa: "PMs must manage change process with an iron fist."

After the gold rush

Not everyone is on the project manager bandwagon, however. "I actually got rid of my project managers, one out the door and the other promoted to DBA/Data czar," wrote Mike Lehman in an email.

Lehman, who oversees IT operations at midmarket chain Batteries Plus LLC, said project manager mania may be a big-company phenomenon. "I found that Batteries Plus was too small for someone to be just a project manager."

What he really needs are IT pros -- including business analysts, specialists (.Net developers) and "functional" leaders (managers of applications and operation) -- who have good project management skills. "We do train internally to develop better project management skills, and we expect our people to be well-rounded and wear many hats," Lehman said.

Deckers' Sowa said it isn't surprising that a large percentage of CIOs, at big and small companies, are opting to train their own project managers in-house.

"An outsider would have a difficult time understanding the culture and nuances of each of the departments," Sowa said. Trust is a big component of a project's success. "Having a trusted individual within the organisation is a tremendous help to the implementation of a system."

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