The Nature of IT Projects

Project Management, on the scale that business managers are really considering when they talk about it, is radically different from IT Support as the nature of the projects under consideration moves to a different level.

Ask a senior manager in an Irish SME about project management as it relates to IT and they are unlikely to think about server upgrades or even moving from one version of an email system to another. What this term is more likely to conjure up is images of a suit-wearing professional organising large-scale projects; for the SME this would mean projects like Finance, ERP, and CRM system implementations.

Project Manager: A suit-wearing professional who organises large projects, drinks coffee, updates Facebook

Just like Support personnel, all the common traits that make for an effective human resource (what a dreadful term) are useful to have in a person tasked with guiding a project to a successful conclusion, and just like support personnel there are a range of role specific skills and characteristics that make a person suited to this particular field. Problems occur when those responsible for hiring fail to realise that there are any differences or when they fail to grasp what traits make for a good project manager.

Even when recruiting a dedicated Project Manager where the entire focus is on getting projects done, the tendency for most companies is to under-specify the role, not through any malicious attempt to misrepresent what they require but rather because they simply don’t fully grasp what they really need. Take a look at any jobs website and search for IT Project Manager and you’ll see the vague job specs that are presented that speak in generalities and leave out most of the details. Project Management, perhaps due to its transitory nature of working one project then onto the next perhaps totally different project, is slightly undersold in terms of how senior a person is needed.

Consider a large IT project that many SME’s go through with wildly varying degrees of success, the dreaded ERP implementation. If ERP is going in across an entire company, effecting every user within every department, and under the guidance of a single project manager, then there is a very strong requirement for that project manager to be skilled in Business Analysis so that they can understand the intricacies of the processes involved and how the new system will realise the business benefits management are seeking. Following on from process driven business analysis the Project Manager will need the skills associated with Management and Business Consultants as no doubt there will be changes pressed upon the business as a result of their new system and management will need help on that front, and they’ll turn to their project manager.

With the Business Process Engineering/Re-engineering out of the way, the nitty-gritty of the implementation has to be dealt with. In fairness, for a system like ERP the vendor will take a significant role on the technical side but they are likely to follow the Project Manager’s lead on certain subjects like Systems Integration, therefore our PM who has spent most of the project so far liaising with users and management now has to carefully consider the systems and applications landscape of the business and determine how best to fit ERP into the mix and how to link everything together; in this they become a Systems Architect.

With the actual installation of the software on a server complete the Project Manager moves into full-on technical mode, assisting with getting data into the system and configuring the system for actual use by actual Users. During this phase of the project the PM is now acting more like a Systems Specialist with a healthy dose of DBA, Developer or any other specialised technical skill, thrown in for good measure.

On top of the areas already addressed, our poor Project Manager now dons their Technical Writer hat to draft documentation specific to the organisation and their configuration of their shiny new ERP software. This is a valuable use of the PM’s time as they’ll need to be ready for the user training that they will be actively involved in, if their lucky along with the software vendor, but more often than not on their own.

Truth is that the right person for the job of Project Manager in an SME really needs to be a lot more than the job spec would ever suggest. Project Management job specs needs to be written better, more honestly, and with a deeper understanding of the dual nature of IT then is usually displayed. IT Projects are the area of IT that many aspire to as it offers the best opportunities for learning and growth but in reality, with candidates and hiring managers underestimating what’s involved, it’s little wonder that those not best suited to the role get hired and go on to have such a detrimental effect on projects.

Even the most technically proficient Project Manager still needs to display another major characteristic, so up next is a look at Leadership.

Part 1: Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum
Part 2: The Nature of IT in the SME
Part 3: The Nature of Technical Support

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