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 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 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.”