TechRepublic columnist Tom Mochal receives dozens of e-mails each week from members with questions about project management problems. Mochal shares member questions—and the answers he provides—in a column each month. So often, IT pros tell TechRepublic that they receive the most insight when they learn about real-life situations that other IT pros are facing.

Question: How can I manage a global, multibusiness project?
I may be asked to establish a project management plan for a coalition of some 10 to 20 businesses, global in scope with international project activities ranging from software development, to banking, to civil and mechanical engineering, to real estate development, to telecommunications infrastructure construction. The coalition wants to coordinate their plans, projects, and budgets to maximize resource utilization and synchronize interdependent projects. What tools and approaches would you recommend?—Rick

Answer: Divide and conquer
I think you realize that it doesn’t make sense to manage these various activities under one consolidated work plan. Once each initiative is approved, it should be managed independently as a separate project. Raising yourself up one level, you could consider managing all of the work as a program. In a program, the underlying projects are related and managed in a way so that the entire program goals and objectives are reached.

However, in your situation, you want to look at an even higher level—portfolio management. Portfolio management is a methodology and process for managing related and unrelated projects across an entire organization. It contains subprocesses for:

  • Defining the logical portfolio. First you need to understand what the boundaries are for the portfolio you will be managing. This includes what organizations are within scope, what types of projects are generated, where resources can be shared, what the reporting relationships are, etc.
  • Identifying projects. There needs to be an ongoing process in place to identify potential business projects. When a project is identified, a high-level process should validate the business benefits, project costs, objectives, major deliverables, etc.
  • Approving projects. A funneling process should be used to take the list of identified projects and determine which of them actually will be approved and funded. In many companies, this process takes place annually to determine which projects should be funded for the next budget year. The process assigns a high priority to projects that are mandatory and have the highest business value. There should also be a mechanism in place to evaluate and make approval decisions on unplanned project needs that arise during the year.
  • Staffing the projects. All approved projects cannot be undertaken at one time. When managing a portfolio, you need to work with the business to understand the timing of each project. This is balanced against the availability of resources. If possible, you want to stagger the projects so that IT people coming off of one project can be utilized on another one that is being launched. Remember that the corresponding business people must also be available.
  • Managing the projects. You want to have information available at a high level that describes how each active project is performing against its plan. The objective of the status is to maintain awareness of the active projects and to be in a position to provide focus on projects that are in trouble.
  • Maintaining project infrastructure. At a portfolio level, you can establish an environment that will give each project the best chance of success. This may include coming up with common processes, tools, templates, etc. You may want to establish a common training curriculum to ensure that everyone in the portfolio has the right set of skills and competencies to be successful.

These steps describe the process at a high level, but they should give you some sense as to what might be involved when managing a complex set of projects. This is a similar approach to what most medium to large companies use to manage dozens, or hundreds, of projects and initiatives going on simultaneously.

After you are clear on the processes, you can begin to look at tools that will support how you want to track and manage the portfolio. If you define your requirements and prioritize them, you can normally find multiple tools that will fit. Identify the tools that look like they would work and then do additional cost/benefit comparisons to see which one is right for you. (I will describe a process for finding tools and vendors in an upcoming column.)

Do you have a project management question for Tom?

We can’t guarantee that Tom will answer every letter, but he will read all of his mail and respond to the e-mails that will benefit the most TechRepublic members. Send us your questions, and we’ll forward them to Tom.

Question: Is technology changing project management?
It seems like technology is changing faster and faster all the time. Do you find that technology is changing project management to any degree?—Deena

Answer: Yes, but you still have to plan the work
This is an interesting question. I think that if you asked a number of people this question, you would get varying answers on whether technology is having a major effect on project management. First, I need to be clear on a couple of aspects of projects where technology definitely comes into play.

First, many projects are becoming more and more technically complex. This is not a project management issue, but it is a product characteristic. That is, the solutions we are building are more technically challenging and require more advanced solutions than before.

On the technology side, we have gone from punch cards to the mainframe, to client-server, to the Web, to mobile, etc. Business needs have become more complex, time-sensitive, and integrated. This evolution has driven the technology side.

Second, the tools we use for project management are changing. Mainframe tools have been replaced by client-server tools, which in turn have been replaced by Web tools. The tools have also become more flexible and more complex.

All that being said, I don’t think the actual project management discipline has changed that much. You still have to manage scope, you still have issues to resolve, and you still have to manage risks.

Some people would say that the drive for better, faster, cheaper solutions has made project management more streamlined. That may be true, but my response is that this should have always been how you manage a project. For instance, you may need to accommodate scope changes much more effectively on a rapid application development (RAD) project, but this is still scope change management. Risk management has become more important, but it is still risk management. In general, projects may be more complex, but you still have to plan the work and work the plan.

Overall, I think good project management processes and techniques will carry the day regardless of how technology and tools progress, as long as those processes remain flexible and scalable based on the project that is being undertaken.