The classic approach to project and scope management – still widely practiced in organizations and taught at universities – brings with it the unfortunate side effect of new information silos.
The problem arises because projects are generally driven by single departments on tight budgets and timelines. While no organization can hope to coordinate every project with everyone, too little coordination before and during projects tends to undermine efforts to manage information as an enterprise asset.
As consultants, we’ve seen it time and time again. The head of procurement wishes to implement a new e-procurement system or the customer service department decides it needs a new database to provide better real-time customer information. A business case is assembled and a project is defined to solve a specific problem for a specific department. The process is usually executed with a minimal budget and limited resources on a tight deadline, all according to corporate policies for how to fund and initiate projects.
Not far into the project, the project team realizes that the majority of the information they need is already stored in another business application owned by a completely different department. A quick analysis shows that there is an overlap of 10 attributes, though different definitions seem to exist for of several of them. The project manager considers the idea of expanding the existing solution to meet the requirements of both departments or integrating with the existing solution to share common information. He concludes this would break his budget and timeline and would give him additional political challenges, which is the last thing he needs at this point. In the end, he goes back to his plan to build a new application with just the information his sponsor needs, without any synchronization to the existing application and with his own chosen data definitions. Sound familiar?
The same problem occurs when multiple projects with overlapping information domains run in parallel. Too often, there is not enough time or money to coordinate sufficiently. The problem has a number of root causes:
- Weak and immature program management functions that do not ensure sufficient cross-project alignment.
- Strong project managers who are evaluated by getting their specific scope done on time and budget (which means anything outside their scope is really just a distraction).
- Lack of appropriate skill sets. College textbooks for systems development and technical project management explain how to capture and document process and information requirements from the business and then build an IT system. Rarely, if ever, do the texts discuss reusing existing data definitions, making sure data is synchronized or how to avoid building new islands of data.
Best Practice Recommendations
There is no simple way to avoid building information silos, but there are a number of best practices you can implement to ensure your organization manages the information in individual projects as a shared strategic asset. The 12 recommendations included in this article are not intended to be a complete framework for information management. Rather, it is a list of best practices that have been successfully implemented at many large and complex organizations around the world.
- Establish a strong program management function, not just a function that keeps track of the number of running projects and if they’re on time. This function manages the project portfolio in a way that considers business urgency, value and optimized information management. If you run multiple parallel programs, you’ll need a function that coordinates across these.
- Integrate information management with existing governance structures like IT governance, business intelligence governance and enterprise architecture so you manage the clear overlaps that exists between the concepts. All these structures aim at ensuring coordinated efforts that are in line with the business objectives and leverage existing IT artifacts.
- Implement a funding model that allows projects to solve challenges the correct way – even though it might cost a bit more or take slightly longer. An increased cost of 5 percent for one project may significantly reduce the cost of subsequent projects.
- If challenges are left unaddressed because of immediate priorities or budget or time constraints, make sure plans are made and a budget is allocated for adjustments later on.
- Appoint strong information architects who review data definitions, data synchronization and other architectural requirements with project teams.
- Train IT and business project managers so they understand and can explain the need to treat information as a shared strategic asset.
- Be careful when working with software vendors or systems integrators who may have their own agenda, which may, for instance, be to maximize the use of their software or focus on implementing a silo solution as fast as possible. Both are examples of agendas that might not be in the best interest of your organization in the long run from an information management perspective.
- Establish and maintain enterprise documentation for the entire project architecture and all data definitions.
- Mandate that enterprise data definitions are discussed and agreed upon in the scope/analysis phase of every IT project to avoid every project starting with its own data definitions.
- Mandate that every IT project updates enterprise data definitions upon completion if new data elements have been defined in the course of a project.
- Implement a cross-functional framework of alignment, quality management and decision-making around data and its definitions (also known as a data governance model).
- Formulate information management control mechanisms and implement them as easy-to-understand principles with a clear rationale and consequences, and anchor them at an executive level.
It seems that in an attempt to optimize IT project execution, too many organizations are undermining efforts to manage information as a strategic and shared asset. Changing this requires visionary executives on the IT and business side that are willing to fight political battles. It takes both courage and conviction to address these 12 recommendations, and you can be certain there will be resistance when you try to implement them. But when it comes to managing information as an enterprise asset, there simply isn’t a good alternative to a coordinated planning and execution framework that balances short and long-term requirements.
Read the Information Management Focus digital edition on project execution.
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