IT and the Ivory Tower

The perennial problem with teaching technology in an academic setting is that by the time cutting-edge applications reach the classroom, they're often past their prime. IT professionals blame the distance between the ivory tower and the real world. The teachers "are mostly full-time professors and have no link to industry," explains Pieter Dorsman, Amsterdam-based product marketing manager for T-Systems, a 100% subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom.

Educators respond that it's not fair to tar all institutions with the same brush. "I think there are regional colleges and universities that keep pace better than others," says Stuart Wasilowski, vice president of Workforce Development at South Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C. "This is due in part to the funding formulas, business demand for trained workforce and most importantly, leadership personnel that allows this progress. When these stars line up, you have the possibility for an institution to be 'up to speed'."

Principle versus Practice
Much of the debate about the right way to prepare students for the real-world needs of enterprise IT centers on a fundamental question: Is it better to teach critical thinking or practice applications?

"Higher education's purpose is to teach principles," says San Francisco-based Greg Skinner, a former Alta Vista Principal Software Engineer and M.I.T. graduate. "It cannot keep up with technology, and it isn't in its best interest to try. The best that it can and should do is to provide as strong a foundation as possible so that students can apply it to current technologies and possibly develop new technologies."

But what about enterprise's need to have fresh graduates on the ground running from day one? "There will always be a delay in adopting newer technologies in universities, unless they create the technology themselves and it becomes a (article continues)

market standard immediately. The question is: Is this really important?" says Robert De Loght, IT management consultant/owner, RDL Consult in Brussels, Belgium. "I think that companies have the permanent responsibility to pay attention to training their personnel. Prior education just paves the way to absorb even more material."

"Training students on one particular tool or programming language is meaningless because technology changes so rapidly," agrees Wuchun "George" Shen, director, Business Intelligence Consulting at AnswerThink in Boston, Mass. "Higher education should instead teach students problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, scientific and innovative approaches and methodologies."

Building Blocks or Bulldozers?
But should universities limit themselves to providing the building blocks? Or should they bulldoze their way to the frontlines?

"I think universities will be forced to hire or work in collaboration with third-party e-learning and instructor-led firms -- or perhaps the companies that actually develop the products -- that are more easily able to adapt and train [students in] new technologies," says Steve Johnson, e-Learning Designer at Pacific Life Insurance in Los Angeles, Calif.

"If they don't, I think the online degrees that people used to scoff at may actually become the best resource for the latest technology training, while [traditional] universities continue to lag further and further behind, graduating students with outdated skills by the time they receive their diploma," he adds.

Universities are well aware of the challenge and are doing their best to respond. "We're not up to speed universally across our whole campus yet, but we're getting there," says Ray Miller, Adjunct Assistant Professor, College of Applied Science -- MET, University of Cincinnati. "With 36,000 students, it is a challenge." (article continues)

Academia Doesn't Pay
It may be unrealistic to expect universities to ever match their enterprise peers. "Universities are large bureaucratic organizations that have very limited resources. With technology changing so rapidly, they just don't have the budget to buy the latest hardware or software technology as it emerges -- particularly because it's always more expensive when it first comes out," says Johnson. "Since they don't have the budget to purchase the latest technology, they don't have the ability to develop a curriculum around it, and they can't teach it."

Nor are commercial companies likely to lend a hand in sharing cutting-edge technology. "Research is no longer funded when it does not have some kind of predictable short- or medium-term return. As a result, most discoveries are made in commercial companies that share their developments no sooner than when they are certain they can make money with it," explains Dorsman.

Dorsman notes that proprietary interests prevent him from releasing information on his own research developments. "If I were doing the same [research] at a university, I would have published at least five white papers over the past five years," he says. "Sadly, no university would fund this."

The fundamental fact is, while the mind is not limited by resources, academic institutions are. Expecting colleges and universities to replace employee training entirely is an outdated notion. It is not even possible to impart all the latest knowledge in a specific domain.

Instead, says De Loght, "higher education should prepare people for flexible and permanent, life-long learning. Even if you spend five years or so at university, you still have 40 years to go in your professional life. It would be better to focus on the 40 years."

Project Management Tools for IT Executives

Blackberries, Web 2.0 tools and other nifty widgets may make life easier, but they don't change the primary responsibility of a senior IT executive. The basic job description still involves overseeing all the resources -- personnel, financial budgets, software and equipment -- invested in various projects, whether they are temporary or one-time projects whose goal is to create a unique product or service, or permanent ongoing operational work performed to create the same product or service repeatedly.

Although hands-on project management tasks are usually delegated to someone lower in the IT organization, senior IT executives still need tools to manage resources. A new generation of software is being developed to provide managers with a complete picture of all the ongoing projects in their organization and help them better monitor and manage them.

What's Going On: The Widescreen Version
Dave Garrett, president and CEO of Washington, DC-based gantthead, a site devoted to project management, says that senior IT executives generally need to concentrate on four main tasks related to project-management:

  • Identifying opportunities for cost cutting, quality improvements and anything else that helps the company achieve its strategic goals or gain competitive advantage.
  • Understanding how the projects map to the overall business strategy as well as defining product development milestones and other organizational objectives. 
  • Knowing how to prioritize, select and stop projects at the appropriate time.
  • Applying resources to maximize their positive impact on the company.

Much of the time, these tasks can be overseen individually using standard (article continues)

off-the-shelf project management software. However, leading vendors such as Microsoft and Daptiv are moving toward offering project management software that monitors all work, not just project work.

After all, IT managers are usually engaged in both project management and running day-to-day operations within the business. So when software only tracks project work, you only have a partial picture of what people are working on. "Monitoring all work gives you a more relevant and manageable picture of resource usage and more management control," says Garrett. "The idea is that, in the end, you can focus people on the tasks that will really move you forward as a company."

From Project to Portfolio
Some experts argue that IT executives don't need project management software so much as they need project portfolio management, which treats individual projects as part of an overall investment portfolio. By establishing values, metrics and technologies that drive visibility across projects and measure process improvements, project portfolio management tools help executives manage a whole series of projects from beginning to end.

With project portfolio management, the goal is to implement effective resource allocation across projects, spot when schedules are slipping and flag where costs are exceeding budget. "Most senior IT executives focus on the vision and the (article continues)

strategy aspect of projects. Portfolio management straddles the line between that and the actual execution of individual projects," says Joseph Phillips, director of education at Project Seminars Inc., a project management consulting firm based in Indianapolis, Ind.

Another way to put it is that project management is about "doing things right" and that portfolio management is about "doing the right things." Garrett says, "If you just manage projects individually, you might be doing the wrong things exceedingly well -- which doesn't really get you anywhere. If you do both project management and portfolio management, hopefully you are 'doing the right things right.'"

Complex Jobs Need Complex Tools
IT is infamous for the exceedingly high rate of change. Whether you are installing a network, building a new data center or developing or upgrading an application, it is "guaranteed that things will change between today and tomorrow," says Phillips. "There will be viruses and bugs and software upgrades and new hardware devices, and vendors entering and leaving the market. IT is extraordinarily difficult to manage as a result."

IT executives frequently make the mistake of planning for the long term but settling for short-term results. What's needed, says Phillips, is a more granular view across the board. "IT is radically different from manufacturing or construction -- executives who move from other functions to IT are astounded at the rate of change," says Phillips. "It needs to be managed accordingly using the right tools."

Keeping Projects On Time and On Budget

IT managers walk a fine line between profits and productivity, but never more than when launching a new enterprise project. Tight budgets, paper-thin staffing or a misstep in scheduling employees or allocating resources can lead to blown budgets and bungled projects.

"Salaries are money, time is money and technology is money," says Wallace Jackson, CEO of Mind Taffy Design, a media content design and optimization management consultancy firm based in Santa Barbara, Calif. "Everything comes down to the almighty dollar."

When Jackson adds up the potential touch points that can knock a project off course and off budget he singles out time, e.g., deadlines, as the most important. Talent, e.g., employees and/or consultants, runs a close second. Technology -- hardware, or processing capability, and software, or user interface optimization -- is also significant. "All of these relate back to time, as more talent equals less time spent; more processing power equals less time waiting; and fewer bugs equals less time reworking."

Build a Breathing Blueprint
Every project needs a plan. But not all plans are created equal when it comes to preventing problems for the long-haul.

The blueprint should spell out precise project needs, not just elaborate on the project description. "Clearly defined and agreed-upon project plans enable stakeholders to be involved in the project where necessary, yet not 'gum up the works' in areas outside the boundaries of their expertise," says Matthew Gallagher, proprietor of Maka's Surf Shop, an Orlando, Fla.-based independent boutique web design studio.

A well-considered blueprint can also prevent scope creep, what Gallagher calls "the bane of any manager over any project." Defining what is being developed is only half of the battle. "Determining what the project is not will keep all members focused on building towards that common goal," Gallagher says.

Paying for the Right People
Money pits within any project can derail the best of budget planning. One of the deepest pits lurks in the talent pool. "I honestly don't believe you get what you pay for these days," says Ranjith V. Balakrishnan, Senior Project Manager at Los Angeles, Calif. -based Professional Interactive Entertainment dba Global Gaming. "Unfortunately, demand for resources supersedes actual quality of work. But it doesn't change the fact that cost is a big factor that either makes or breaks a project."

Allocate funds for quality talent, rather than choosing cheap talent or assigning tasks to staff based solely on time availability. "Many times the required skill set is not readily available simply because it is not cost effective to maintain a full-time employee," says Balakrishnan. "And, sadly, the reality is that people who do not possess the required skill set are given tasks just because there isn't anyone else readily available to do the job."

Monitor skill-sets rather than bodies and plan to add and delete consultants accordingly. Hiring better talent, or even adding contracted expertise, may actually reduce the overall project costs.

Beware of Cost Creep
Hidden costs throughout the life of the project can also sink a budget. "The project cost is important, but during the project phase I also evaluate the expected recurring costs, such as license, maintenance cost and people over time," says Francois Mignot, IS manager at Sanofi-Aventis, an international pharmaceutical company based in Dijon, France.

For example, one hidden cost can emerge when deadlines are moved up. "An accelerated deadline date will result in more consultant usage," says Columbus-based Mike Buglioli, IT Senior Manager at insurance giant Aflac. "Having the right skill sets in-house will reduce consultant use."

Don't let expertise be limited to a few key people. Either rotate the staff or distribute the work to deepen your bench strength and to ensure the success of the project is not vulnerable to employee turn-over.

"IT is a mind game. If a critical resource is lost the project can go off schedule," counsels Gautam Gupta, Group Leader, Amdocs in Cyprus. "So in every scheduling, I always keep rotating the roles in a round robin manner."

Mind the Clock
Prior to initiating a project, determine crucial checkpoints in the timeline and weigh the availability, productivity and cost of preventing each potential pitfall at each checkpoint. That way, you can get an early jump on the need for additional resources and ensure that deadlines and budgets will be met.

Collaboration with Control

No organization is an island. To be sufficiently agile and survive in today's fiercely competitive markets, you must work closely with partners, suppliers and customers. Not only will collaboration result in significant cost savings and process efficiencies; it will allow you to boost customer service and create a significant competitive edge.

"Effectively running a business today involves working with multiple organizations and with multiple departments within those organizations," says Nari Viswanathan, research director, supply chain and logistics, at the Aberdeen Group, in Boston, Mass. "That can only happen if traditional silos are broken down."

Yet wholesale collaboration can be too much of a good thing. Without proper organizational, you risk losing focus or slowing progress on strategic objectives in an attempt to satisfy too many demands. Without proper technological controls, you're in danger of giving away proprietary information.

How can you maintain a happy medium when collaborating? Here are four best practices that enable you to work closely with others without losing sight of your own goals:

Get buy-in from the very top of all relevant organizations Directives to work with others must be mandated by leaders at all organizational levels or effective collaboration simply won't happen. This doesn't just mean executives in the C-suites of all separate businesses involved, but the senior managers within each functional department of each business. At the same time, guidelines and rules for keeping out the "noise" of requests or suggestions from partners and customers must be set and communicated throughout the enterprise to avoid employees being distracted by conflicting demands. (article continues)

Align everyone's incentives to meet strategic goals People who talk the talk may not always walk the walk. "Unless people understand what's in it for them, they won't truly participate," says Jan Twombly, president of The Rhythm of Business Inc., a consulting firm specializing in collaboration based in Newton, Mass. "Collaboration is all about 'give and get.'" This means making sure that people are rewarded for acting to further the aims of the enterprise in general rather than just their own particular profit. "If a sales person has the incentive to push for volume only, he or she might not be thinking about whether the products being sold are the most profitable," says Viswanathan.

Drive mutual decisions through agreed-upon metrics "Different strokes for different folks" may be a nice management mantra, but to collaborate successfully, all parties must agree to one shared standard of what is being measured and how it is measured. Is it the overall profitability of the business? Is it keeping customer service levels high? Is it minimizing inventory? "You have to think about the kinds of actions you want to encourage and put the metrics in place to change behaviors," says Viswanathan.

Install the right infrastructure to protect valuable data Some types of collaboration can leave organizations vulnerable by providing competitors with insight into proprietary operations or strategies. "When you open up your systems to an external organization, you are taking risks," says Sam Pullar, founder and executive partner in the Cumberland Partners Inc., a consulting firm based in Suwanee, Ga., that provides manufacturing firms with distribution and logistics services. "You must put the appropriate technical controls in place to guard against those risks." Twombly agrees that, "Most enterprises already have security systems in place that authorize certain internal people to access certain kinds of information. With external partnerships, you need to slice and dice those access rights even further." (article continues)

There are innumerable benefits to collaborating across organizational boundaries -- both inside and outside the four walls of the enterprise. For example, by bringing together all participants in the supply chain -- from internal manufacturing and distribution functions to external partners such as raw-goods suppliers, wholesalers or retailers -- businesses can dramatically reduce inventory and slice the amount of overall working capital that is tied up in the supply chain at any one time. Likewise, internal collaboration between formerly siloed functions or departments can drive efficiency and result in tangible bottom-line benefits.

"It really comes down to entrepreneurial thinking," says Twombly. "If you think about it, the chief job of an entrepreneur is to rally people around a vision -- most particularly, those people that you might not have authority over. You must constantly be thinking of ways to get them to pay attention to your particular needs. Simultaneously, the controls must be in place to make sure you aren't serving their objectives at the expense of your own."