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Change work for the better: IT project management for the modern era

There's no question about it — work isn't what it used to be. From global and outsourced workers to millennials and mobile culture, the old top-down approach to the organisation is going the way of the dinosaur. This has implications for every department in every industry, but with its focus on applying the right technologies for every task, IT is particularly affected.

Traditional challenges for IT departments

IT has always been a matter of supply and demand. The supply has to do with your team and its resources, which are no doubt limited. The demands, from developing new apps to change requests, never seem to end. Everyone wants to be first in line.

If you don't stay prioritised and on budget, your IT department can quickly spin out of control. In fact, the average large IT project is "45 per cent over budget and 7 percent over time," according to recent research by McKinsey. According to the McKinsey report, "most projects deliver 56 per cent less value than predicted."

And the most horrifying fact of all?

"17 per cent of IT projects go so bad that they can threaten the very existence of the company."

Complicating factors

As you're probably well aware, proliferation of the cloud and mobile devices has raised the stakes on the matter. Company (and consumer) apps touch every level of an organisation. From the consumerisation of IT to the new world of SaaS, IaaS and PaaS, IT departments grapple with a vastly different reality today than even ten years ago. Moreover, with marketing departments handling a growing proportion of technology, IT faces an unprecedented challenge; namely, staying relevant in a plug-and-play infrastructure.

To gain a better understanding of the challenges facing modern IT, it is worth looking beyond information systems and into the people, processes and politics that affect the department.

People, processes and politics

As McKinsey has shown, the perfectly coordinated IT department is a rare beast indeed. Which forces are to blame for this endemic lack of coordination? A different study, conducted by 451 Research, forecasted that "non-IT roadblocks," in particular, people, processes and politics, are slowing down cloud projects.

Those three words have a very specific meaning for IT today.

1. People

Who are the people in the workforce today, and where are they? The answer is vastly different today than it was 50 years ago.

A global, distributed workforce

Workforces are distributed, meaning the people who get things done are located all around the globe. IT has traditionally been a heavily outsourced department, and that is not slated to change in coming years, according to study by accounting firm KPMG, which found that IT is one of the departments that most heavily relies on outsourcing in 2013.

KPMG found several reasons that companies outsource. According to the survey, 87 per cent of businesses outsource to reduce costs. 82 per cent do so to achieve greater scalability of operations, and 74 per cent outsource for process standardisation. The bottom line with outsourcing? Everyone's doing it, and it has changed how people interact in a company.

The new generation of workers

More and more, companies' labour resources are profoundly affected by the influx of millennials in the workforce. By 2025, more than 80 million millennials are projected to be in the workplace, which means that the specific work habits of this generation will shape the culture of work.

Though this generation of workers is sometimes portrayed as entitled individuals with insatiable expectations, millennials, more than any other generation, stand to democratise collaboration. This opens up opportunities for the nature of collaboration to empower individual workers.

The millennial generation – often thought of as the generation that "lives online" and "works online" – brings a fundamentally different pattern of work to the corporate culture, and companies can use this to make great strides in their markets.

The fact is, most millennials' actions were tracked online from their youth; so for them, monitoring and recording their tasks is all about proving their worth to the team and the project – this is a part of taking pride in their work.

Companies can use the desire of millennials to have a clear voice in their workplace to develop greater transparency in management and project assignment. These individuals thrive on transparency and a sense of team cohesion, something that social media provides. Because millennials are used to interacting online regardless of their physical locations and the time of day, companies should use this habit to develop not only transparency, but team cohesion and operational excellence.

2. Processes

Companies must adapt their processes to encourage the greatest productivity in today's collaborative, always-on environment. The boundaries between professional and personal lives have blurred. Many people work in their home offices, in the offices of clients or on the move. The kind of top-down management structure that used to work has been diffused.

Companies must ask themselves: which processes are still working, and which aren't? How do we adapt our processes to best serve the realities of the workforce today? The processes that worked for the traditional in-office workforce do not necessarily apply.

Using old tools to collaborate — in-person team meetings, email — doesn't address all of the ways that teams work together, and doesn't tie in global workers or millennials effectively. This, of course, can lead to problems in both productivity and team cohesion.

3. Politics

Today's IT environment is in transition. As a result, collaboration can deteriorate, causing duplicated efforts, power struggles, confusion and misdirected productivity. The misuse and under-use of workers, in turn, can imperil teams and entire organisations. Moreover, the very nature of cloud technology threatens the ability of the IT departments to control — or at least influence — IT purchasing, which can now be done by business owners. Developing a structure that supports and collaborates with the business side of the house will gain IT the influence and access it needs.

Rethinking work

If the primary reason for outsourcing is to reduce costs, why are about half of IT projects over budget and delivering less value than expected? What's going wrong?

If nearly three-quarters of companies outsource to standardise processes, but processes are one of the biggest roadblocks slowing down the completion of cloud projects, what are IT departments missing?

There's the old saying that crisis is another word for opportunity. IT departments are mired in delays and budget overruns, and face significant complications from global, mobile work environments. Yet this represents an excellent opportunity to completely recalibrate the way that we work — and build a better organisation as a result.

Organisations must come up with a better way to collaborate, prioritise and communicate, so that we get work done in the most effective way possible. Today, many of our processes actually create more work. Hunting for versions and email attachments, having two people do the same work because progress isn't being tracked well, spreadsheet inefficacy, and overlaps in project management are examples of making more work. The place to begin is by redefining work.

In the ideal world of work, processes are organised around a concept of work that is rooted in collaborative communication for a distributed workforce. Projects today happen 24/7. Communication must be streamlined. The distributed workforce must maintain contact as conveniently as if they were working in the same room during the same hours.

What is work?

Right now, there are two impulses within a company that make up its production: communication and work. Each concept is layered with the production cycle processes that define it. For example, think about a particular document. A document has a lifecycle that reflects both communication—what did it take to make the document?—and work, the actual effort of producing it.

In order to create a single document, we think about the objectives of the document, we write down the main points and we have a working draft to which we add until the objectives are met. We then release the document for approval, at which point key leaders review the document and measure it against project objectives. We get an approval and we deliver the document.

That's an example of an object lifecycle. During this lifecycle, there are stages that start with an objective that needs to be addressed, a process of reviewing work against standards, and the final delivery of the objectives.

The right tool creates collaboration within the object lifecycle, so that companies do not get paralysed by their own rigid processes and definitions of work. Instead, we galvanise collaboration along the lines of market-driven evolution of a company. Companies with quality products and deliverables sometimes lose out to their competitors not because of any inherent misunderstanding of the market needs, but because their processes cannot respond to important growth changes fast enough.

The work funnel

The concept of the work funnel takes these new definitions of work one step further. The work funnel encompasses a company's entire work lifecycle by taking into account every priority and variable in a project, establishing the social graph of the project's team resources, and creating teams.

It uses elements similar to Facebook, Google+ and Twitter, in that behaviours, connections and priorities are recorded and categorised for easy reference and management. The teams create conversations; some conversations become activities, which have specified parameters based on the project priorities and the end-deliverable. These activities may become company deliverables that reflect the well-defined process. In this way, the work funnel assures management accountability, which is reflected by budget allocation, identifiable resources and ending stages of the object lifecycle.

Inevitably, project deliverables rely on interrelated activities that function optimally when the operations' priorities are clearly articulated. This is how organisations can stand apart: by managing the work funnel from top to bottom – and bottom to top, as appropriate – in a way that highlights the social engagement in project collaboration, which empowers individual team members as it enables project managers to see short-term and long-term results.

By embracing the concept of the work funnel, companies can:

  • Link unstructured conversations with structured, results-oriented processes
  • Streamline project management
  • Assign and change tasks according to changes in collaborative efforts
  • Respond to social collaboration to maximise human resources and minimise waste
  • Empower people on the front lines of IT by increasing communication of strategic directives from the executive team
  • Connect resource allocation to end results, which allows key project leaders to make informed decisions about how resources are used, and to prepare data-based IT requests to upper management

The net result? A company's IT workforce operates according to best practices in the company processes, which means fewer financial losses due to costly, redundant resources and activities. The IT team also gains the knowledge and confidence to make smart decisions for the company.

The benefits of rethinking work

Harnessing the work funnel creates transparency, which is at the heart of rethinking work in today's marketplace. This visibility adds value to each and every individual by acknowledging how focused communication and collaboration drive a company's processes to their deliverables. This real-time transparency increases awareness of every member of a project team, not just the managers, and this is crucial to workforce empowerment.

The work funnel enables you to react faster to a more accurate picture of the status of projects and the productivity of collaboration teamwork. Project leaders are educated on the entire view of the lifecycle so individuals can engage deeply with every progress report they see, and anticipate consequences of each short-term decision. Greater education about a company's work lifecycle means developing individuals' vested interest in it. This is how we build teamwork.

Teams also receive a clear view of the array of project responsibilities, and this increases investment and ownership in the team. The context of local projects is de-mystified, so that team members become an integral part of the larger picture.

Driving democratisation and change

The work funnel increases accountability, to be sure, but it also jump-starts a company's move toward greater democratisation in a non-threatening way. Oftentimes, companies struggle to respond to today's distributed workforce and millennials' demands for greater transparency and real-time collaboration because of the perceived threats they imply to a company's existing best practices.

By adopting work-funnel practices and the right technologies, leadership teams get what they need—expedited communication and increased individual gratification. In this way, collaboration and transparency—democratisation of communication—evolves from team members, not from the top down. The more team members understand their group agreements about priorities and responsibilities in an initiative, the more morale and productivity benefit.

Applying the right tools

Efficiency and transparency happen when a company is empowered to identify and address collaboration with the appropriate tools. Here are some things to look for in the tools you adopt.

1. Familiar social media concepts. Tools should use the concepts of social media and real-time communication to enable enterprise-wide collaboration and project accountability. Also look for the critical ability merge social communications with work execution—this combines the two impulses in a company's lifecycle that are often artificially segregated when an IT team adopts a platform, and this opens the company up to many possible unnecessary expenses, like vendor lock-in.

2. Holistic management. The right tool will allow a bird's eye view across an entire project portfolio, including the real-time change request pipelines. This enables managers and team members to understand how current resources are distributed and how effective they are at addressing long term objectives.

3. Real-time visibility into projects. The best tools will pull all data and activities entered by IT team members and automatically updates the appropriate project or request, so the lost time in local data entry is no longer a wasteful misuse of labour for the IT team.

4. A configurable system that matches your IT environment. One of the most distinct qualities any good IT project management software is the way it's designed to work from within a company's work processes, not to require those processes to adapt to it. Good platforms feature an intuitive interface, fully configurable dashboards which encourage customisation, visible and specified workflows, organised business rules and approval processes, as well as custom actions and fields. Moreover, your platform should integrate with the tools IT organisations use most frequently, including JIRA, Box, Google Drive and more. This level of integration allows companies to support operational excellence and business performance.

5. Project planning. Planning ahead should be the priority of any systems platform, and your tool should use this anticipation to prompt and automate future planning with highlighted timelines, customised project and management milestones, budget due dates and ceilings, and articulated deliverables. You should also be able to create and reuse plan templates to develop best practices for common initiatives.

6. Resource management. Project planning and accurate, real-time project insights mean that the IT team determines which projects it can undertake and when work can commence. This enables the team to establish reliable delivery dates at the outset, so that workflow processes do not have to react and adjust to revised timelines in the case of inaccurate resource measurement and inappropriate resource distribution.

7. Project portfolio management. The right tool offers constant centralisation of all requests for new projects and changes, and compares this data to the available budget, human and team resources, and current maintenance and development workloads.

8. Email collaboration. Your platform should work for everyone's productivity, not just the IT team. Employees should be submit change requests and issues via email, kicking off a task within the project management application.

9. Change request and issues management. Your tool should understand that change requests tracking must require the minimal effort if it is to become a part of a living, breathing, multidimensional constellation of an IT team's resources and priorities. Requests should automatically include relevant details, such as the name of the person who requested the change, description, priority and timeframe, as well as all pertinent email and social discussions, notes or attachments.

10. Ticket management. A focus on individual requests should include features to track, assign and manage all helpdesk tickets, as well as organise all pertinent communication around a particular ticket. Automatic notifications inform ticket originators when issues are resolved, and the turnaround time is recorded and synthesised into the IT team's overall performance tracking collection.

11. Timesheet tracking. The ideal platform streamlines and organises information-gathering of all billable hours subcontractors spend on each project or change request within IT processes.

12. Budget and expense management. It almost goes without saying that you should be able to truly track all expenses – including subcontractor hours – on a project-by-project basis to ensure every project in the pipeline stays on budget. While some providers and systems management products lock you in to certain subcontractor billing patterns, the best tool anticipates the variety of expenses that an IT team faces—whether or not it originates from upper management or accumulated patterns in maintenance requests.

13. Mobile connectivity. Today's workforce is engaged online, digitally, all the time, and everywhere. The distributed workforce and reliance on communication transparency means that to empower your technicians, the modes of productivity communication must match the expectations of democratised communication. Your platform must enable your IT technicians to respond to issues, participate in discussions, and enter tickets and issues using a tablet or smartphone.

14. Internal and external collaboration. Your platform should promote and foster seamless collaboration between team members, third-party consultants and internal clients in dedicated workspaces.

Realising the highly effective IT department

The best tools help IT teams instigate a democratic culture of communication and collaboration. Regular project updates and continuous feedback will become standard processes. As a result, peers will collaborate more, as well as recognise and acknowledge one another.

This democratic culture of communication is founded on the transparency, widespread understanding and education. Your platform nurtures your workflow ecosystem by building awareness and individual team members' investment within it. Teams re-align. Productivity and morale increase, while wasteful excesses in IT resources decrease.

These elements truly tie together the pieces needed to manage, nurture and empower the modern workforce. The idea of a global, mobile and millennial workforce will no longer be a concern, but rather represent factors that render your organisation more effective and competitive.

Avinoam Nowogrodski is founder and CEO of project management software company Clarizen.

Images: Flickr (Victor1558)