At the TDWI 2010 Spring Conference in Chicago where I co-taught our workshop “Data Governance for BI Professionals,” there was a lot of discussion about technology trends. But the question, “What is the biggest trend?” gave me pause.

The biggest trend of late has not been the adoption of the latest, greatest data visualization tool or adoption of the cloud. The biggest trend is occurring across disciplines and competencies: a spate of failures arising from a lack of basic program and/or project management.

Not too long ago, visionaries struggled to define and sell the value proposition of master data management and, before that, business intelligence programs. Today, the tables have turned. Technologies have matured, concepts have gained traction in popular usage and success stories abound. Selling the program is not necessarily the biggest stumbling block. Rather, organizations are struggling to deliver. As Gartner might say, many companies now find themselves in a “trough of disillusionment” brought about by a lack of implementation experience and basic project management discipline.

Defining the Course

Success begins with a plan. Make no mistake, for organizations starting down (or revamping) the MDM or BI path, the scope of the exercise can be overwhelming. Consider the following activities, all of which occur on a typical BI or MDM project:

  • Changing business processes and practices,
  • Defining business rules across functional groups and organizations,
  • Implementing governance for data or projects where governance has not existed before,
  • Integrating multiple systems or data sources, and
  • User training and adoption.

Understanding the broad strokes is not enough. Without a well-articulated plan of attack, a clear understanding of related and dependent activities, and ongoing management and communication, the endeavor is sure to fail.
Consider this analogy: I recently embarked on a mission to improve my health. My goals were clear and I understood what was required of me to execute on my vision: Eat more good foods (of the green, leafy vegetable variety) and less bad. Exercise more. Give up Diet Coke (gulp). Burn more calories than I consume.

What I lacked was a cohesive plan of attack about where to start and how to make it stick. Enter my trainer; we’ll call him John. John sat down and took a good look at my lifestyle, work environment and habits – good and bad. He assessed my current state and applied his experience to establish a plan to iteratively incorporate better eating habits and exercise into my daily routine. More vegetables? You bet. But we didn’t start there. We started with breakfast (eat it) and a general roadmap for the rest of the day. Exercise was likewise ramped in over time. It’s all well and good to think about jogging a mile or two, but without some preparation it would be an exercise in frustration. John also considered the various events he knew were likely to knock me off course. This meant:

  • Knowing and proactively accounting for all the small and seemingly insignificant ways in which I would unwittingly cheat.
  • Defining default go-to routines for those instances when my schedule changed without warning.
  • And last, but definitely not least, outlining a path back if I went off track entirely. After all, who can avoid ice cream forever?

Of course, your BI or MDM program isn’t as simple as my exercise routine, which only has a few moving parts and one primary actor: me. Added complexity makes it even more important to have a clear plan of attack to initiate and execute.

Staying the Course

This is where the art of project management and a good dollop of relevant experience come in handy. The discrete activities involved in implementing BI or MDM programs can differ significantly from traditional application development projects. Program and project management fundamentals do not. Therefore, practical experience with project management as well as the program at hand, be it MDM or BI, is a critical success factor.

The role of the project manager should not be confused with that of an administrator responsible for ticking items off a task list and asking, “Are you done yet?” True value-added project management entails looking ahead to identify and resolve issues on behalf of the team. To refer back to my trainer analogy, John doesn’t physically place me on the treadmill each day or sit with me through every meal – I am accountable for that. He does, however, monitor my progress and ensure that I understand what comes next. He also reminds me of the consequences of noncompliance.

Indeed, the best project managers not only comprehend but also help define the measures of success for a given project. They look beyond rote status updates and weekly meetings and understand how specialized activities – scoped realistically and deployed incrementally – are related to the project’s overall value. Project managers are leaders and change agents who celebrate achievement, proactively assess, prioritize and communicate potential pitfalls and facilitate action to continuously move the ball forward.

Course Correction

Things change. My work schedule is unpredictable. The daily cardio routine that made me gasp for air a few months ago no longer raises my heart rate to a level worthy of medical attention.

And so it is on any project. From learning that the data you were told existed does not (or is so dirty you wish it did not), to uncooperative or downright contrarian team members and shifting business priorities, the only constant on a project is change.

When done right, program and project management processes – including change and issue management – manage expectations. They also allow for necessary course corrections to avoid the full stop or lingering decline poorly performing projects experience. Without John’s help tracking my progress and modifying my wellness routine accordingly, I may have made some initial gains, but complacency and/or frustration was sure to follow. It would have been a short slide back to business as usual.

Enterprise programs such as BI, MDM and data governance require vision and strategy. But that is only the beginning. Delivering on your vision requires experience and a meticulous approach to planning and managing the program from start to finish. Effective execution cannot be mandated. It can, however, be cultivated and nurtured through effective leadership, methodical project management and proactive communication.

Read the Information Management Focus digital edition on project execution.

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