IT projects are renowned for being challenging, and various certifications look to pinpoint and address the elements needed for managing such projects. Jutta Mackwell spoke to a number of experts to find out what skills can help to bring an IT project to a successful finish.

A post on the BCS Project Eye blog back in November 2009, which picked up on the failure of the government’s C-Nomis project, sparked a lively debate among blog readers as to why so many big IT projects fail.

Suggestions ranged from failure to monitor progress, to lack of accountability and ownership to arbitrary political pressure. However, one recurring message seemed to be that IT projects fail because of inexperience or simple incompetence.

‘Poorly trained project managers’ has been identified as one of the top reasons for project failure by the Office of Government Commerce. This, as Brendan D’Cruz, Head of Department: Business & Computing at the University of Wales, Newport, points out, applies in particular to IS/IT projects.

‘In some organisations the role of managing the project may be given to a well educated subject expert rather than a qualified project manager, thus resulting in a fairly ad hoc approach to project management without the use of the most effective tools and techniques,’ explains Brendan, who is also a member of the BCS Project Management Specialist Group. ‘Appropriate investment in training for project managers, developers and users is critical for the future of successful project management.’

The technical side

So what exactly are the particular challenges of IT projects - and are they really that different from ‘normal’ projects? Eddie Kilkelly, Chief Operating Officer at ILX Group, one of the main providers of (IT) project management courses, explains: ‘The principles of IT and generic project management are the same - in any project you have to understand what you are trying to do. The challenge [of IT projects] is that underneath the managerial area there is a technical layer, and I’d say it is nearly impossible to manage an IT project if you have no concept of technology. A broad understanding of IT is essential.’

Bob Hughes, Chairman of the BCS Project Management Panel and former Chief Moderator for the ISEB Foundation Certificate in IS Project Management, argues along the same lines, saying that while the principles are the same, the application for IT projects needs different skills in order to address the particular challenges such as:

  • complexity, e.g. software tends to be more complex and needs a lot more testing efforts;
  • conformity / changeability, e.g. software is easier to change than hardware or organisations, which means usually software has to change and;
  • invisibility, e.g. progress is less easy to see.

He explains: ‘IT project management tends to have greater emphasis on areas such as the technical stages of project life cycles, software and hardware prototyping to reduce specific types of risks and estimation of effort needed to implement IT, and qualifications such as the ISEB Certificates in IS Project Management are therefore often recommended as a “top-up” to the Prince2 practitioner qualification.’

‘Generic qualifications such as Prince2 tell you what you need to do, but not how to do it,’ Eddie Kilkelly agrees. ‘You’re left with questions such as “How do I estimate?” and “How do I control?” IS-specific qualifications help to put a methodology in the right context where these questions can be answered.’

Focus on communication

It seems then that IT project management skills go way beyond methodological and technical knowledge. ‘On top of my list for really excellent IT project managers are interpersonal skills and commercial awareness,’ says Melanie Franklin, Chief Executive of Maven Training. ‘You need to be able to explain in layman’s terms what you are doing and why it is useful. In IT we tend to get excited about shiny new things, but you need to be able to explain to others why this is useful in commercial terms.’

These interpersonal and commercial skills are addressed in requirements put down for assessments such as the APM Certified Project Manager Interview and the ISEB Higher Certificate, which include for example communication, vision, flexibility, self-awareness, responsibility, judgment and staff motivation.

Engaging the end-user

The success of IT projects can also make or break with the engagement of the end-user. ‘A key principle is to try to involve users or their representatives throughout the project, for example, getting them involved in specifying and evaluating user interfaces, testing systems and so on,’ explains Bob Hughes.

‘Combined with coordinated communications, learning has a large part to play in managing change associated with IT projects. Sadly, the delivery of the new system being the project end is often the perception of IT project boards’, adds Jooli Atkins, Managing Director of Matrix FortyTwo and Chair of the BCS Information and Technology Training Specialist Group. ‘A great IT project manager needs to be technical, understand the business need and fully engage users through change management.’

‘You need the buy-in from users,’ agrees Eddie Kilkelly, ‘and the best way to get that is through regular contact and communication.’ Too often IT projects are completed without the training requirements being properly considered during the project life cycle, and several high profile projects have subsequently either been delivered and then not used, or their use delayed whilst user-specific competency issues are addressed.

Brendan D’Cruz agrees: ‘Training is an essential part of preparing the user community for system usage and of change if the project is ultimately to be successful.’

For this reason, IT project managers need to know what they are doing on a psychological level. ‘When you introduce a new system, you often move people from being unconsciously competent of what they are doing to being consciously incompetent - you have stolen some innate knowledge, so now they have to work to get it back and relearn, through no fault of their own,’ explains Melanie Franklin.

‘In a way the old system represents all that they were capable of, in spite of its shortcomings,’ adds Jooli Atkins. ‘One experience we had with a move from one Office suite to another in a large organisation was to ask users to write down all the things they love about their old system and, on another flipchart, all the things they hate. We were then able to reassure them that they were keeping all the things they love and that the things they hated were no longer there to annoy them. This small step recognised that the users’ feelings were important and helped them to accept the new system more easily.

‘Many IT project managers are technically highly competent and understand how to use the project management tools to deliver the best system for the business, but rarely do they combine these skills with a good understanding of the impact of the system on the users. The deliverable for any IT project should be competent, confident users of the system.’