The channel's incessant push into service provision has seen it innocently stumble into the domain of a little understood discipline - project management. But for some the process of managing a rollout is simply the fulfilment of a lengthy sales process; others it's when the sales rubber hits the road.
The tantalising smell of a big IT systems upgrade win is just too good. What's even better is working in an IT world high on venture capital steroids that now offers upstart IT companies a reasonable chance of cracking the big time.
The once-dominant outsourcing companies don't look so mean after all. Large systems integration deals are now there for the taking, as IT services continue to enjoy an industry premium. But according to industry participants, a gulf is emerging between common IT theory and the hard reality of managing a 2000-seat rollout, Y2K remediation project or GST-compliance program.
While project management begins to emerge as an IT discipline in its own right, inconsistent standards, poor training and staff shortages stand to undermine the practice before it gets a chance to truly take off.
According to independent IT consultant Laurie Dunlop, one of the most fundamental challenges facing companies working in this area is maintaining effective communication.
"You can't afford to have anything slip off the rails by not having an up-to-date status on a project," he said.
With 30 years experience in the IT industry in various MIS, consulting and project management roles under his belt, Dunlop is "delighted" by the emerging interest in project management as a discipline, but concedes most IT professionals do not aspire to it as an end in itself.
"The key is not a product, but offering a solution," he said. Therefore, communication between system integrators, equipment providers, any third-party organisations and the customer becomes paramount.
According to Dunlop, exact specifications and expectations of a project must be locked down at the very beginning, otherwise the result could be disastrous.
"The general feeling is scope creep can be like trying to hit a moving target," he commented.
Tony Langley, CSC's regional perform manager and ACT executive representative, claims project management is one of the company's market advantages. "We think it is one of the greatest discriminators of success or failure," he said.
Frank O'Donoghue, sales and marketing director of financial systems integrator Applied Business Technology (ABT), reports his company has developed its own "living" project management methodology to cope with the demand to produce consistent results.
ABT built its methodology practice on the International Standards Organisation guidelines for project management. "We've subsequently overlaid our own methodology based on our experiences," O'Donoghue said.
Typical steps in the strategy include developing macro and micro plans, clearly defining project milestones and creating detailed checklists (see breakout box).
O'Donoghue agrees with Dunlop that communicating responsibility for individual components of a project is critical. In fact, part of ABT's methodology is to nominate one of ABT's staff to a project once a sale has been made. "He is personally responsible for producing the project on time and on budget," he said.
In addition, the company has a policy of asking its customers to dedicate a senior staff member to the project to avoid the risk of failure. According to O'Donoghue, without dedicated staff on each side of the fence, the project will struggle to succeed as employees try to juggle their existing responsibilities in addition to handling a major project.
A notable part of this component also includes holding what ABT calls "getting to know you sessions" between its staff and the customer to equalise the expectations between both parties. This approach helps overcome what O'Donoghue says can sometimes be a rocky transition from the sales people to project implementers.
Standards. But for all the good intentions and open communications, the issue of industry standards is still proving to be something of a bugbear.
Tony Reeve, an independent business consultant with many years in the field across companies such as Compaq, SAP and Wang, observes the core issue is deep-seated. "There is a vested interest by companies to keep their own standards," he said.
While some companies adhere to various standards laid out by industry bodies, the benefits of a proprietary methodology clearly represent an advantage. According to Reeve, if both integrators and the large outsourcers adopted universal standards, the industry would achieve massive efficiency gains.
Mark Walker, regional director for Paradigm Software Technology, is on a similar wavelength in the belief that fewer industry-wide standards can easily exist. But Walker is more pragmatic, sticking to a core belief that there is no substitute for experience.
"It's not a science, it's built on gut feel," he said.
While Walker agrees specific project management education is helpful, nothing can help you prepare for a "multi-level crisis". His advice to resellers is to step back from the situation and look at it from a different angle. "Can you think laterally enough to deal with the situation?," he asked.
Terry Quanborough, manager of Compaq's Asia-Pacific project management office, concedes adherence to industry-wide standards will never happen while individual outsourcers maintain their own standards.
"I don't think you will get consistent methodology," he said. "I don't think it becomes a major selling point."
Quanborough, another member of the Project Management Institute of NSW, believes a company must make sure it constantly reviews its processes. "It's just a matter of track record," he said.
From his perspective, the integrator must have the ability to identify and quantify the risk of a project to itself and the customer. Therefore, only one person at the customer site should be responsible for communication and contact with the various parties, particularly where system changes are required.
People power. But herein lies another problem. Finding the right people from the outset is proving to be an understated challenge in itself. Dunlop claims project management is far from immunity to the skills shortages affecting the entire IT industry. "There are team leaders, but there are not enough people aspiring to the project management discipline," he said. Walker concurs: "The skills are there but in very small doses."
He attributes the brain drain to the big money offered to project managers in places like the UK.
In Australia, Walker estimates the big guns can expect a salary of $120,000 per year, while in the UK it runs into the "hundreds of thousands of pounds".
O'Donoghue said ABT has solved the people problem by growing its own project managers or looking around in non-IT industries, particularly construction and engineering. "They don't have any expectations of what can and can't be done," he said.
The only risk with bringing in people from these industries is that customers could become offended by their "insensitive" approach.
Dunlop agrees, stating that project managers from engineering or construction backgrounds typically don't understand the politics of the IT industry. "The IT-type person has a little bit more to do with the people and politics of an organisation on the job," he said.
Where to from here? According to project management firm CH&M Co, no one gets promoted for producing a fine management plan - only for completing a successful project. While obvious, the "on time and on budget" mantra remains the benchmark of success.
"If you can do 30 terminals with the snap of a finger and do it within the budget and timeframe you are considered a good project manager," Walker said.
He said experience on the smaller projects gives resellers and integrators a crack at the big league. The golden rule appears to be don't rush the project and risk mistakes just for the sake of being on time.
According to O'Donoghue, a customer will forget the project was late in around 30 days if it was done well. If a system fouls up but was completed on time, the customer will never forget.
Dunlop said the project manager must quickly develop expertise in a variety of areas around the core management discipline.
For example, Dunlop himself is currently working as a consultant for IBM, which in turn contracts him out to work on Lend Lease's outsourced Y2K project.
"Next year I could be working on GST," he said. Meanwhile, another danger facing project managers is what Dunlop refers to as the "misinterpretation of the actual status of a project".
For example, a project manager or client may report that a segment of an IT rollout is complete when it is actually only 90 per cent done, he explained.
As a result, Dunlop is an advocate for an emerging approach in project management circles called "earned value". This measures the "true progress" of a project, which is in itself critical to a project manager's success. With new approaches like this continuing to emerge on the scene the debate is far from over.
In fact, it seems the IT world appears to be the project manager's oyster with an abundance of offerings ready to satisfy a myriad of approaches and styles.
With any coherent sense of industry consensus some way off, the channel will continue to mould itself around the industry trends.
What does seem clear is a dedicated project manager will play a fundamentally more critical role within resellers and systems integrators. CSC's Langley states that it will be tough for smaller integrators to move "up the food chain", but agrees that many smaller channel players serve an important role as third-party or niche solutions providers. "A lot of them have really deep skill sets," he said.
Dunlop has his own view of the way forward: "The channel now has to present a solution via the skills of a project manager."
Typical project management stages
Initiating processes. Recognising that a project or phase should begin and committing to do soPlanning processes. Devising and maintaining a workable scheme to accomplish the business need the project was undertaken to addressExecuting processes. Coordinating people and other resources to carry out the planControlling processes. Ensuring project objectives are met by monitoring and measuring progress and taking corrective action when necessaryClosing processes. Formalising acceptance of the project or phase and bringing it to an orderly endMore information available at:http://www.pmi.orghttp://www.newways.orghttp://www.phalanx.com.au/index.htmwwww.incom.com.auhttp://www.housley.com.auhttp://chm.newways.com.au/what_pm.html Information courtesy of the Project Management Institute