Aki Karhu
Mar 4, 2011
Posted in category: 2011 Member Articles

Hired Gun

Hired Gun

Professional Project Management at Your Service

Are you planning a big IT project and have no-one to lead it? Consider hiring an outsourced project manager professional.
Your own organization can utilize its business expertise, while the project manager takes care of the core parts of the project, including supplier control, time schedules and requirement management.

And there is more.

Working as an outsourced project manager for multiple customers in the past few years, it surprises me how mentally difficult it is for companies to hire a professional to do the job. I can see every day how much value outsourcing brings to the customers, including indirect benefits, which do not read in any project plans.

First of all, it is important to understand the concept of outsourced project manager in a same way. He or she is an external expert hired by the buyer, not the supplier. Instead of assigning one of the regular employees, a hired professional will lead the implementation project. It is his or her task is to ensure the expected project objectives by management will be achieved.

Right resources available at the right time

The most common reason to hire an external professional is a lack of resources. Implementing an ERP system can be enormous and often unique endeavor for a company. It adds a heavy extra workload on individual employees. “It’s a turnkey project, your task is just to monitor supplier performance”, said one IT manager cheerfully in a meeting. After two hour discussion, he realized that he still missed written requirements of the logistic process, management of acceptance testing, and the plan for the contract migration, to name a few. In the IT business, it might be that nothing happens when you “turn the key”.

Additionally, there are the project management competences. Managing a complex software implementation project requires experience of project management practices and knowledge about related technologies. Often the appointed customer project manager is a service manager of the previous ERP system. When existing systems can be 15 years old and based on completely different technology, learning to forget the old might take more than learning the new technology.

Committed, not involved

Two years ago I was assigned to a business intelligence project for an international customer, which had operations in Europe and in the USA. An additional challenge was that the operations in both continents were divided into two different business lines; manufacturing and project business. The management wanted to have harmonized reports throughout the company. After two weeks, it became clear that my main task was to create balance between four independent units, separated by geographical and process dimension. As a neutral expert, I was considered credible enough to suggest reasonable compromises for a common goal.
Employees in project teams are sometimes biased by their personal interests, affecting important decisions. They may want to secure their position, local office or department. An external project manager has not such personal agenda and will just focus to do the job.
As a neutral party, the outsourced project manager can assist both the buyer and the supplier and even in possible conflicts be the arbitrator between the parties. A very typical example is a testing report: joint project teams sometimes tend to downplay failed test results in order to show progress and declare the project success. An experienced project manager knows that the common interest is to find all errors before deploying the system.

Talk business, talk technology

I often find myself working as a translator in the projects. Regular users have no experience on databases, clients, or objects – which appears to be the only language that developers understand. Regular users are not used to describe their requirements in specifications formally and precisely, and their minds are locked to use cases which they are familiar with. As an example, a sales manager may require a new discount method in the system, but is unaware about effect caused in invoices and accounting. On the other hand, developers and designers must consider all the possible use cases systematically, including abstract cause and effect -analysis, but they sometimes forget the hard reality.

It’s human business, limitations apply

The most commonly heard reason not to hire an outsourced project manager is lack of subject matter expertise: “He does not know our business well enough; our business is so unique…” I rather think it is a limitation, not on obstacle, which can and must be solved with proper role definitions. The project manager can communicate and facilitate, and must be supported by the business experts. Furthermore, there are surprisingly many concepts that are similar from business line to business line.
One of the key success factors are the personal management skills of the project manager. Known project methods and practices are just tools that carry the project from start to completion. Some projects require a very sharp and determined project manager, while some projects need more of a facilitator and change manager. If the outsourced project manager cannot adapt to the needed role, failure is an option.
In a project in the wholesale business, I was struggling with the level of authority. The company, which had over 500 salesmen, had culture that did not support clear responsibilities (other than customer ownership). This allowed team members to consider themselves as customers and external project manager as a servant, leading to incomplete project tasks. Such situation can be avoided with sufficient senior management actions; let all employees know the authority of the project manager and their role in the project organization.

Utilize the bonus advantages

Often large IT projects include a many changes to the business processes. This is typically not in the scope of the supplier; as long as the software works as promised, contract terms have been fulfilled. The outsourced project manager can support the management in implementing the change in the organization. Without process changes, the benefits of the new system may not be achieved, which is in essence money wasted.
One of my recent assignments is in a growing company operating in Nordic Countries and in the Eastern Europe. As the individual country companies are relative small and the daily operations are not IT-intensive, the company does not have a common project methodology. The hidden agenda of the management is to establish the project culture throughout the company. There is no better way to do learn it than taking on a tough challenge with a professional coach.

This article, was co-published in Äri-IT March 2011 issue, a business magazine by BCS Itera (www.itera.ee).

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