Effective project management is hard to achieve, says Andrew Lawrence.
In the space of a few years, project management has come a long way. Ten years ago it was a complicated planning operation carried out by engineers with large charts and clipboards. Few people understood the disciplines involved and the public face of the project manager was as progress chaser, expediter and deadline manager.
Today project management is on the rise. "In our organisation", says Jeff Hooley, business manager of the Metros division of BREL, formerly British Rail Engineering Ltd, "the project manager is king. He is responsible for all of it, from manufacturing to public relations." The company, which is in the process of fulfilling a £300 million contract to build new trains for London Underground, has been changed dramatically since it was privatised in April 1989.
BREL is one of a small band of organisations, primarily in the engineering sector, which are taking project management techniques right to the top of the business, and are reorganising accordingly. The changeover, aided by the use of sophisticated information systems, has been made to ensure that all managers in the company, which is highly dependent on large project-based work, can act together to achieve clearly defined goals and can react flexibly in the event of unforeseen problems.
John Brown Engineering is taking the same line. Last year it finalised a five-year information technology strategy, spanning its worldwide operation, which puts project management techniques into the frontline of business management. All of the crucial engineering data, along with thousands of details of every project, will be stored on an international network of computers which can be accessed from the top.
"It will be possible to interrogate the database about any project at any time. Eventually everyone in the company will be using the system," says David Jones, John Brown's information technology co-ordinator. At director level, executive information systems, with colourful, easily understood interfaces, will provide an overview of what is happening with the various projects. The system will not just be used to schedule projects but to quickly identify and react to problems and assess their effects on the overall business.
The spread of project management is not just confined to the engineering sector: banks, government departments and insurance companies are now among the biggest customers of project management software tools. Its growing importance is driven by a dovetailing of three factors: a willingness to manage corporate activities as projects; a recognition that matrix management may be more efficient than traditional line management structures; and the growing sophistication and integration of information technology systems.
Traditionally managers have made little distinction between special project work and other more routine tasks and both have been managed in much the same way. The most notable exceptions have been in engineering, where the complexity of the projects initially required the development of special techniques; and in information technology (IT), where the adoption of formal techniques became a necessity.
The IT industry is almost a special case. It is strewn with examples of projects which have run badly out of control. "In IT we have such a reputation for being over budget, under scope and late that project management is now viewed as an essential key to successful projects," says Bob Smith, an information systems specialist with Ernst and Young. The situation in IT is so bad that some consultancies have "runaway" projects teams to go in and sort out the problems for their clients.
Project managers have long recognised that "a wedding is a project, but a marriage isn't". But according to Bill Lattimer, a partner with Andersen Consulting, there is now increasing recognition of this division among general managers. Some tasks are projects, associated with some kind of change, and others are ongoing and routine.
But according to Robin Browne of Metier, which supplied its Artemis project management systems to both BREL and John Brown, this division may be taken further: "Organisations are finding they can break up routine work into bite-sized projects."
According to Browne, the project management system of yesterday will increasingly become the planning and control system of the 1990s. "You can start to plan and control by treating the whole business as a project." He believes that project techniques can go further still, and be used as the basis for change management. He makes an astonishing claim for Metier: "We'll offer to cut costs, resources and project times by half."