Project management: getting the balance right

Project management has always been a conservative science and a traditional art, and it's no different with the implementation of...

Project management has always been a conservative science and a traditional art, and it's no different with the implementation of Web-based projects, writes Annie Gurton

With Internet years compressed - like dog years - to a fraction of real time, there is always a pressure to implement Web projects at a terrific pace. No sooner is the decision taken to develop the electronic component of the business than it is expected to be done. Common sense and a realistic appreciation of the time it takes to develop and introduce a new technology and process seem to be thrown out of the window, whenever the Web is involved.

But there are tangible risks of fatal damage to the business if a Web-related implementation is rushed. Too much haste can lead to resistance from individuals, poor integration between applications and servers and, worst of all, the loss of data integrity with a high risk of data loss or corruption.

A structured, methodical approach is essential, if the details are rushed or overlooked the impact can resonate throughout all departments. Speed is necessary, but not by compromising security or quality.

The science and art of project management, with all its hard-learned maxims and principles, need to be applied to every Web or e-commerce implementation. By investing more resources the delivery time can be brought closer, but not by short cuts.

There is no replacement or alternative to being properly organised and that means thinking everything through very carefully and thoroughly before you begin.

Sean Savedra, a consultant with reseller Morse Computers, is a strong believer in a process-driven methodology and says, "The key elements of the project must be clearly defined. There must be absolute clarity about the business vision that the proposed new initiative is supposed to support, and how success will be measured.

"There are many levels of e-business and degrees of e-integration, and not all businesses need full e-business - at least in the short term."

Savedra says a Web implementation project must be treated like any other. "The fact that there is a perceived urgency, with newer technology and more people with opinions, does not detract from the need to stick to sound basic project management principles," he says.

"You still have to understand the requirement, agree the functionality and user interaction, the architecture, and the timescale and milestones before you start to build it. Then you have to test it, deploy it, support it and continue to evolve it."

The analogy with housebuilding is strong - you can't get the roof on until the walls are up, and the plumber has to come before the electrician. The order of actions in a Web implementation are equally logical, although many Web projects slip into problems because there has been a failure to tie down the early stages before moving on to the candy-floss.

One of software supplier Staffware's clients, Netherlands-based Anovar Insurance, now sees dramatic business benefits and competitive advantage from its e-business implementation. Manager Ton de Wit says that, with hindsight, he wishes he had taken a more orderly approach. "We did not involve the IT people early enough, and the process of change management was not part of the project implementation, so that the users and managers involved with the new system were not properly educated about the impact and changes before and during implementation. There was unnecessary resistance from managers who did not understand the benefits, and that could have been avoided by widening the project milestones to include education of users," he adds.

It is frequently a temptation to learn on the job. But the right skills must be in place before you need them. This can be achieved by hiring in-house or, more often, using a specialist third party for a short time with an agreement that skills are transferred.

De Wit says, "Their experts would train our people so that when implementation was complete they would leave and our staff would be capable of continuing the work and maintaining the system. Skills transference was an important part of the project."

Some consulting firms have their own methodology for Web implementations. Rebus, for example, has a system that it calls "The Method" which has been specifically developed for implementations involving Internet space.

Malcolm Wolf, Rebus' chief consulting officer, explains, "There needs to be a phased approach that underpins the whole project life-cycle. Specific streams of activity based on specific skills and roles should run through the phases and include project management, account management, marketing and strategy, security, infrastructure, content management, design and technology and so on. Many of these are parallel activities that promote teamwork and help users understand the 'big picture' of the project."

Wolf says "The Method" is designed to deliver Web projects efficiently by using established multidisciplinary teams combining business, technical and creative skills. "The formal approach increases implementation speed and lowers risk," adds Wolf.

Whether a highly formal or roughly structured approach is taken, it is always tempting to focus on the technical and overlook the importance of the cultural integration and pace both alongside the marketing work.

Bob Wild, an e-business consultant with Compass Management Consulting, says, "The e-strategy has to be all-encompassing and efforts focused in the right direction, with a balance between the technical, cultural and marketing. If the right groundwork is done, with a pragmatic attitude, the firm should know how fast it should be proceeding and how much back-office integration needs to be done at each phase. Once this is done, the implementation becomes a very simple project."

Wild advocates a series of short chunks of work, with a period of review and testing after each before embarking on the next stage. "If the implementation starts with pilot projects and small chunks of the eventual offering, then it is possible to change on the fly and the project is more manageable and achievable," he says. Wild, however, agrees that speed is important in an e-development.

"The only way forward is to experiment and take risks," he believes.

Speed, however, cannot be achieved by compromising security, says Richard Torr, technical director of Amey IT Services. "Companies must realise that with the new e-channel to market comes new security threats and an added reliance on reliable IT systems," he says. "Suffering downtime or having information corrupted, deleted or intercepted can lead to heavy financial losses or even business failure, and is simply unacceptable."

A risk analysis phase - early in the project - should highlight the dangers and their consequences, and the steps necessary to eliminate them. Torr suggests, "Companies have to establish the appropriate investment in security as a judgement balanced against the financial impact of each type of possible security breach."

However, in considering the risk of loss of data integrity, confidentiality breaches or hardware availability outages, the cost of prevention has to be balanced against the likelihood of them happening - and the cost to the company of an occurrence.

"There is no point in installing too many protective procedures," says Torr, "or the cost will outweigh any business savings and may deter prospective customers."

Part of the project's testing process should include intrusion testing, says Torr. "It's also necessary to conduct continual monitoring and submit regular security audit reports on usage and security exceptions," he adds.

As well as involving the marketing and cultural changes alongside the technical, the e-development project should also be sensitively integrated alongside other projects, and developing other business channels which are not Web-dependent.

There are several other technologies which offer extremely interesting new routes to market, such as mobile and broadband, which should be considered as part of the new customer access strategies, plus the physical locations.

Bill Donoghue, chief executive of Web presence development agency Ebeon, says, "It's madness to run an e-development project outside other projects. E-business should form part of an integrated customer relationship and business development strategy, which involves call centre provision, product fulfillment, billing and marketing. In other words, all aspects of a business. It's not an isolated activity unless you are planning a subsidiary dotcom by stealth, in which case it should still include all the cultural and marketing aspects."

The only approach, says Donoghue, is to view the new business through the eyes of the customer and then plan systems development to support those expectations.

"We recommend using an e-business mapping model," he says, "which engages with clients and users and embraces the dimensions of technical features, design and content, access media, regional deployment and business scale, and with a map to project the potential growth over time. This approach enables those implementing the project to ensure that all issues - such as platform, architecture, hosting, security, legality, taxation and content - are balanced between all the interested parties.

"The fundamentals of scalability, security, robustness and extensibility must not be compromised for content and features," Donoghue points out. "Content and features, however, must not be rushed just to hit a deadline."

Project management has always been a conservative science and a traditional art and nothing has changed since the arrival of e-business components.

Ultimately, it is still the careful, methodical approach that is likely to be the most successful.

Getting your project timing right

If your e-implementation is too fast, you risk building a tactical solution that soon becomes obsolete because IT:

  • Fails to scale

  • Is difficult to integrate with existing systems

  • Resists the integration of new future technologies as they come down

  • Fails to allow advantage to be gained from new future technologies

  • Is not robust enough

  • Fails to deliver the original business objectives

    If your e-implementation is too slow and the project suffers from inertia:

  • You miss the market opportunity

  • The site is obsolete before it goes live

  • Money and enthusiasm dry up

  • Those involved become demotivated

  • The company and market needs change during the project lifetime.

    Project hints and tips

  • Pressure to deliver rapidly can be met by setting more chunks and milestones which are met at apparently speedier intervals, while actually proper project methodologies are not compromised

  • Balance your long-term requirements with the short-term desire to have an e-presence

  • Make sure the project plan includes all streams of work, not just the technology, such as brand definition, site promotion, integration with all processes, product availability, and change management of all users

  • Realise that a softly-softly approach is better than a big bang. Get a basic system running live and then extend and expand it, rather than trying for the whole enterprise live in one big effort

  • Establish a core functionality and realistic launch date, and make sure that happens before moving on to extending the system

  • Keep lines of communication open - invite comments and criticisms and consider their validity seriously

  • Keep the site and integration simple - just because special effects and wild technical features are possible, you don't have to include them.

    Key e-project phases

  • Define objectives and constraints

  • Analyse risks

  • Form a cohesive team with a balance of technical, marketing and creative skills. Define administration requirements

  • Agree the milestones and key elements

  • Specify the technical solution

  • Commission content design and writing

  • Define and implement appropriate security processes and technologies

  • Select an ISP to host the service

  • Initiate a well-documented change management process

  • Implement

  • Test

  • Go live

  • Re-test

  • Measure against original objectives

  • Support

  • Develop and evolve.

  • Read more on IT project management